The Holy Grail of legal education has long been teaching law students to “think like a lawyer.” Most of us have a vague sense of what that means and how it’s accomplished, but turns out it’s an actual brain process known to neuroscientists as conditioning. Linda Graham’s book Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain For Maximum Resilience and Well-Being describes conditioning as follows:
Conditioning creates automatic habits of behavior by encoding the neural firing patterns of repeated responses to experience, stabilizing the neural circuitry of that learning, and storing those patterns of response in implicit (unconscious) memory. When you repeat a pattern of behavior often enough, eventually you don’t have to focus your attention on it anymore; the neural circuits underlying that behavior have stabilized in your brain, enabling you to respond to a similar situation automatically.
Creating habits of behavior through conditioning is your brain’s way of being efficient. Without conditioning, you’d have to relearn how to tie your shoes every morning. . . .
[F]ocused attention causes neurons in the brain to fire; focusing on the same object or experience causes repeated neural firings; and repeated neural firings create new and stable neural structure. When we focus our attention on cultivating a particular pattern of behavior, a character trait, or attitude or lens for filtering experience, we incline the mind toward that objective . . . We notice more readily the desired trait or behavior, register it more fully in our consciousness, and direct mental activity toward it,
[W]hen we formulate an intention, . . . the repeated focus on that intention begins to build new brain structure and circuitry that support us. . . . We turn a neural goat path into a freeway.
Thus the Holy Grail is pursued and realized. For three years, we condition law students’ brains, turning their lawyer-like neural goat paths (remember what it was like the first time you read a case or a contract?) into neural freeways (consider how you read them now).
No problem if that’s all that happened, but combine brain conditioning with the brain damage caused by law school stress, and ironically, it appears that too often we accomplish this educational ideal by turning out lawyers who all think in the same brain-damaged way. The Destruction of Young Lawyers describes this outcome as follows:
At the same time that law school breaks students, it also creates them, or rather, molds them in its image. But what does it create? On the positive side it creates people who have good reading and writing skills, who are diligent and hardworking, who can see both sides to an issue. Law students are hard workers, and they are typically very high achievers with above-average intelligence.
But on another level, law school churns out some very scared people. . . . [A]t the same time that [law students] are taught to act empowered, they are truly disempowered. . . . Despite the appearance of professionalism and self-sufficiency, law students are actually helpless and dependent when they graduate.
Thankfully, there is an antidote. Bouncing Back introduces it:
If conditioning is the process that encodes stable patterns in our neural circuitry, neuroplasticity is the mechanism that works to alter them.
As Prof. Austin says in Killing Them Softly:
The modification of neural networks in response to experience, such as legal education, is neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is why some (not all) lawyers’ brains and hearts recover from law school and avoid the impact of law practice stress.
More next time.
Prof. Austin provides another take on this topic with her upcoming law journal article, “Drink Like a Lawyer: The Neuroscience of Substance Use and Its Impact on Cognitive Wellness.” I will provide a link when one is available.