In ancient times (read: “B.C.”!) when two people entered into a contract, they would go to the local “promise stone,” standing on either side of it, and put their index fingers through the keyhole until they touched. They then made a promise to each other.
Did you know that lawyers deviate significantly from the general population on several key psychological traits? This brief video presentation Ethics Squared prepared for the Association for Professional Responsibility Lawyers, discusses the research of Dr. Larry Richard of LawyerBrain and what these unique psychological traits of lawyers mean for the legal profession and society.
An Arkansas judge’s recent suspension illustrates the powerful role our world view or mindset plays in our interactions with the world.
The Arkansas Supreme Court recently suspended Judge Barry Sims for thirty days, with an additional sixty-day suspension lifted, on the condition that Sims takes measures to remediate his conduct. The Court required Sims to take a class on “mindfulness, patience or civility” with a judicial training organization. Another requirement was for Sims to hire a counselor or life coach to “help consult with him about how he treats professionals appearing in his court.” 
How do we know that Sim’s professional troubles are a result of his mindset? Because the only people he was found to have “bullied” (the term that was used by a representative of the board who made the decision) were public defenders. Not prosecutors, court personnel, civil attorneys or citizens. Just public defenders.
Mindset is defined as:
- a mental attitude or inclination;
- a fixed state of mind. 
All of us view the world from a unique point of view based on attitudes developed over many years of our life. These attitudes are shaped by the values and viewpoints of our family of origin, the culture of the location where we grew up, the culture of where we now live and the culture of the groups and individuals we choose to affiliate with – including our political affiliation.
What a stew indeed!
Our mindset gets us into trouble when we don’t examine it. When we let our mindset run subconsciously on autopilot, like the computer program running in the background, it will diminish our available psychological bandwidth and prevent us from working at our best.
Obviously, Judge Sims has a very strong mindset about public defenders. It would be interesting to know why. Does he presume that the public defender’s clients are all guilty and representing them thoroughly slows his docket? Or has he bought into the wildly inaccurate stereotype that public defenders are the least skilled and least qualified of lawyers. And how did he come to believe what he believes about public defenders in the first place?
Mindset as a saboteur
We all have worked, or work with, someone who has a mindset that makes them difficult to deal with in one way or another. Thankfully, most of us have mindsets that are more open and more examined than Judge Sims. But we are all vulnerable to our subconscious mindset tripping us up and sabotaging our efforts.
Mindsets are often at play when a team member doesn’t move up the ladder as they would like, despite having the requisite technical skills for the job. It is often the reason why someone isn’t included on a special task force or project. We often are not aware of how others see us and how our subconscious mindset influences our actions in the workplace and the world at large.
Why the term “bias” is unhelpful”
Critically, our subconscious mindsets are often where diversity, equity and inclusion issues come in. Very few people intend to biased against others. Unintentional discrimination or prejudice results because the brain relies on familiar patterns when helping us filter the world we are experiencing. Much like radar, our minds are scanning our external horizon in search of things we recognize. The issue is that the “radar” in our brains is not tuned to “see” things that we have little experience or familiarity with. Our brains subconsciously assume that how we see and experience the world is how other people see and experience the world, so the brain subconsciously sorts out or excludes certain factors.
The scientific term for this subconscious sorting is “bias.” It is not a values based determination, simply an label for a subconscious sorting dynamic by the brain. Which is why using the term “bias” is unhelpful in corporate education programs and discussion in general. It suggests that people have a subconscious discriminatory intent. It makes people feel like we are somehow flawed, morally. The term can put people on the defensive.
So instead of the labels diversity “training” (another unhelpful term – we aren’t unruly pets in need of training) or subconscious “bias,” more helpful terms are “awareness opportunities” or “awareness education.” After all, the call is for us to be more aware about ourselves and about others. To learn about things we have not encountered or seen. To learn about the systems we are in and how they work for us and others.
Professional development education and coaching can help us becoming more aware of ourselves. Becoming more aware of ourselves and the systems we inhabit is a fun, interesting and very powerful tool. Awareness helps us better navigate the world and achieve our goals – and helps others achieve their goals too.
So, let’s wish Judge Sims good luck as he delves into his awareness education. Hopefully it will help him, and the criminal justice system in his district, be more effective and positive.
 A special place in heaven awaits Public Defenders and Legal Aid attorneys. They knowingly walk away from jobs with higher salaries to serve the disadvantaged in our society. They included some of the most highly skilled attorneys I know.
Did you know that ethics decisions are impacted by our brain chemistry in the moment?
We all like to think that being an ethical and moral person is something intrinsic to us. That our morals were formed by our family of origin and people who influenced us positively when we were in developmental stages. And to a large extent that is true.
We also know that circumstances and culture are powerful influencers of human behavior. We remember one or both of our parents warning us about the perils of “falling in with the wrong crowd” and “peer pressure” when we were teenagers. We venerate those brave individuals who do the right thing, often at great risk to their own interests, when their peers are too timid to point out that the emperor has no clothes.
But it feels unnerving and unnatural to think that the chemical juices in our brain, which we give little thought to, can pull us off our moral foundation and the virtues we all hold dear.
Simply having elevated levels of testosterone and cortisol at the same time increases our tendency to engage in cheating for self interest (and cheating is often a way to temporarily alleviate anxiety and stress). You can read more about that particular vicious circle here. Cheating to relieve anxiety.
There are a handful of hormones and neurotransmitters which impact ethical decision making. And learning about them and how they impact our ethical decision making is fun and interesting. Understanding how brain chemistry impacts decision making helped me understand how I misinterpreted many emails. It also helped me gain clarity about many of my less than stellar decisions – a process of self analysis that is uncomfortable but highly informative and equipping.
With increasing frequency, professional development courses and programs are focusing on neuroscience, particularly as it relates to cognitive decision making dynamics.
Brain chemistry, a subset of neuroscience, can directly influence how ethical or moral we are in any given moment. Managing our brain chemistry not only makes it more likely we will make better ethics decisions it has the added benefit of simply making us feel better.