A dog called Everything and the law

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A Rottweiler called “Everything” died five years ago.  On the anniversary of this tragic event his owner paid a special tribute to his beloved dog in a social media tribute that went viral.  Everyone loves and trusts their own dogs, even though many people don’t trust dogs—especially large ones—in general. Maybe a trustworthy Rottweiler can teach us something.

In December of last year Gallup did a trust survey of most of the professions.  Guess what?  Lawyers came near the bottom of the list—along with members of congress, lobbyists and car salespeople.  Only 4% had very high trust in members of the profession.  I suppose the good news is that lawyers rated higher than real estate people and telemarketers (but it was close).  For some reason scientists didn’t rate a mention in the survey although other similar studies have found that they don’t do that well. (Disclosure: I am a scientist, a behavioural neurogeneticist, as well as a psychologist.  Psychologists are rated much more highly).

I admire lawyers, I work with lawyers, I advise lawyers and, if Richard Susskind were to be proven to be correct, I would intensely mourn the profession’s demise.  But for a variety of reasons those who practice law have never been trusted by those outside of it.  The peasants’ revolts of the middle ages in Europe were partly fuelled by hatred of lawyers.  The Romans distrusted them and wrote witty poems and plays disparaging them.  Even the ancient Egyptians viewed lawyers with a jaundiced eye.

Why should the legal profession be so hated for so many ages?  Even now 75% of the general public and SMEs avoid any contact with lawyers.  Maybe that’s why the joke about the shark and the lawyer is so popular.

In the latest book that my colleague Alicia Fortinberry, PhD and I wrote “Leading the Future: The Human Science of Law Firm Strategy and Leadership”, we come to a much more optimistic place than Susskind, but this trust issue has to be addressed.  It has to be addressed because the legal profession needs allies who are not the even more distrusted lobbyists and MPs or members of Congress.  It has to be addressed because the profession has to reach out to the 75 percent un-lawyered public and businesses and to those who currently believe that Google has all the answers.  It has to be addressed because in the future lawyers, even in the largest firms, will not only be dealing with colleagues who happen to be working on “the inside.”

More than anything else it has to be addressed because, we believe, there is a huge opportunity out there which lawyers can tap into and which has nothing to do with technology, apps, AI or the like.

Lawyers share some of the same image problems as Rottweilers.  Maybe it’s the fact that law is seen as essentially an adversarial profession.  It seems that the breed of Rottweiler and the breed of lawyer find it hard to trust since they are always looking for what’s wrong and to where the danger is.  Lawyers, like Rotties, are ready to fiercely protect their clients, or owners as the case may be.  The legal breed and the canine breed probably share having an over-active amygdala (the brain’s fear centre) which means that they tend to see threats everywhere and respond accordingly.

It’s strange but true that people want attack dogs on their side; they love and support “their” Rottweiler or lawyer (if they have one of either) while at the same time distrusting the breeds in general.  Both have the same PR dilemma.

It’s unfortunate because the great opportunity is for lawyers to become what merchant bankers tried to become but never could: the advisers who truly know and understand everything about a client’s business or industry.  They are trained to ask the kind of questions which are awkward, probing and important.  In the future their questioning and their acute listening skills will be far more important than their knowledge.

Recent research has shown that the human neurogenetic system is so constructed that it’s hard to trust those who don’t trust.

Just as a Rottie must learn to not attack and be socialised, a lawyer must learn to be non-adversarial, must learn to be trusting in order to engender trust.  It’s difficult for both breeds since the one was bred to be a guard dog and the other was trained to be so. Or maybe, as recent genetic studies have shown, both are genetically predisposed to be attack dogs and both must learn to put aside their instincts.

It’s not easy to bridge the gulf of distrust between lawyers and the wider community. “Everything” knew how to do it. Maybe scientists and lawyers have a lot to learn from that much-lamented Rottweiler.

By Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, PhD is a principal at the international consultancy Fortinberry Murray. He is the author of 10 books, most recently “Leading the Future: The Human Science of Law Firm Strategy and Leadership” and a regular speaker at law leaders’ conferences in the US, Australia, the UK and Asia. He is an award- winning scientist and a psychologist. He specialises in helping firms in the areas of leadership, strategy, marketing, BD and culture change. His clients include major law and professional service firms, governments and many Global 500 companies.