f/k/a archives . . . real opinions & real haiku

May 7, 2007

Older & Wiser, LLP?

Filed under: Haiku or Senryu,viewpoint — David Giacalone @ 5:46 pm

RumpoleG  After yet another week writing about the perils ahead for our graying legal profession, I almost decided to pass over two pieces in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine (May 6, 2007) that dealt with issues of old age.  I’m glad I didn’t.  Although I’m still focused on aging and the legal profession, the two articles are interesting whether you care about old lawyers or not. 

In “The Older-and-Wiser Hypothesis,” Stephen S. Hall shows us how difficult it has been to define “wisdom,” and discusses the purported connection between being old and being wise.  In “A Longer, Better Life,” Sara Davidson interviews MIT biologist Lenny Guarente and Robert N. Butler, M.D., who won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for “Why Survive? Being Old in America,” and now heads the International Longevity Center, on whether we can expect longer, better lives.

Stephens gives a brief tour of academic projects that have tried to define wisdom and devine who might be wise.  There is no consensus. Here are some highlights in the Stephens’ piece:

  1.    “From the outset, it’s easier to define what wisdom isn’t. First of all, it isn’t necessarily or intrinsically a product of old age, although reaching an advanced age increases the odds of acquiring the kinds of life experiences and emotional maturity that cultivate wisdom, which is why aspects of wisdom are increasingly attracting the attention of gerontological psychologists.”
  2.     “[I]f you think you’re wise, you’re probably not.”  Gandhi1931
  3.      “Indeed, a general thread running through modern wisdom research is that wise people tend to be humble and “other-centered” as opposed to self-centered.”
  4.     The so-called Berlin Wisdom Paradigm emphasizes several complementary qualities: expert knowledge of both the “facts” of human nature and the “how” of dealing with decisions and dilemmas; an appreciation of one’s historical, cultural and biological circumstances during the arc of a life span; an understanding of the “relativism” of values and priorities; and an acknowledgment, at the level of both thought and action, of uncertainty.
  5.      Sociologist Monika Ardelt looked at the trait of “resilience” (bouncing back from advesity). “In Ardelt’s working definition, wisdom integrated three separate but interconnected ways of dealing with the world: cognitive, reflective and emotional. . . 
  6.      In Ardelt’s analysis, the cognitive aspect “included the ability to understand human nature, perceive a situation clearly and make decisions despite ambiguity and uncertainty. The reflective sphere dealt with a person’s ability to examine an event from multiple perspectives . . .And the emotional aspect primarily involved feeling compassion toward others as well as an ability to remain positive in the face of adversity.”
  7.     Psychologist Laura Carstensen of Stanford University says older people “disattend” negative information.  In 1890, philosopher William James had a similar insight: “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.” 

checkedBoxS  According to Stephens, the Berlin Group “were among the first to reach what is now a widespread conclusion: There’s not a lot of wisdom around.”  The Germans also:

“punctured one conceit about growing old when they found no evidence, in four different studies, that wisdom, as they defined it, necessarily increases with age. Rather, they identified a ‘plateau’ of wisdom-related performance through much of middle and old age; a separate study by the group has indicated that wisdom begins, on average, to diminish around age 75, probably hand in hand with cognitive decline.”

The Berlin group reported that the roots of wisdom can be traced, in some cases, to adolescence. Others have also pointed out that many people we consider to be wise have been “vaccinated” earlier in life by adversity.

Red Rock Canyon:
my whoop comes back
sounding older


one more friend buried
I shorten my list
of priorities

………………. by George Swede, from Modern Haiku

Meanwhile, the Davidson interview with Guarente and Butler in A Longer, Better Life,” has some interesting things to say about the science of aging.  But, it doesn’t suggest we’re about to make major breakthroughs that will help assure the mental acuity and emotional maturity needed to increase our society’s wisdom quotient.   On the macro level, our society doesn’t seem, despite how rapidly it is aging, to be putting its resources where they are needed:

BUTLER: Why does 50 percent of all cancer occur after 65? Why does 80 percent occur after age 50? As we age, there are changes at the cellular molecular level that predispose us to disease and disability. But so far, no government, no foundation, no corporation anywhere in the world has fully embraced the importance of longevity science. If we could target aging, that would have an impact on diseases.

America has also failed so far to recognize Alzheimer’s as a health crisis. Why is it a crisis?

BUTLER: It afflicts about four and a half million people now. As baby boomers grow older and live longer, there could be 14 million afflicted — about triple what it is now — by 2030 if we don’t find a means of prevention and treatment.

Finally, Davidson asks a question we all care about: “There’s a lot of advice given about how to maintain a healthy body, but do we know how to maintain a healthy brain and prevent dementia?”

checkedBoxS  BUTLER: I’m afraid there’s a lot of romance in the literature suggesting that we can stop Alzheimer’s disease by cognitive exercises.

Davidson: Like doing crossword puzzles? My mother has done them all her life, but she lost her memory anyway.

BUTLER: Just as exercise keeps the body in optimal shape, exercise — both physical and mental — can keep the brain in optimal shape in terms of thinking clearly, making judgments and solving problems. But having a healthy body doesn’t prevent you from getting cancer. Similarly, maintaining a healthy brain doesn’t prevent you from having memory loss or getting Alzheimer’s.

old tombstone
losing its name
faint first star

………….. by George Swede – The Heron’s Nest 

With this information in mind, I’m wondering whether we can expect declining mental acuity suffered by lawyers as they age to be offset by increases in widsom.  See, for example, Stephanie West Allen’s posting at Idealawg (April 9, 2007):  

“The head beneath the grey hair often holds much wisdom; perhaps the aging heart represents the glue in a firm’s culture and values. I hope we will appreciate what greying lawyers have to give, no matter what form those gifts may take.”

My own initial response is in the negative.  Although many of us — and it is especially males who seem to need it — do get a bit more mature in our mid-to-late 30s (e.g., less reckless and full of ourselves), I’ve simply seen no evidence that individual lawyers get appreciably wiser as they age, much less that the ones who stick around the  longest are the wisest.   Regardless of the meaning of wisdom, if you’re going to be a mensch or an old soul, you’ve almost always grown into that role or demonstrated the characteristics long before your late 60’s or 70’s.  Furthermore, no matter what my own mediator predilections might be, I’m fairly sure that many partners would be most displeased to find out that the Wise Old Counsellor is recommending fewer lawsuits and less adversarial approaches to solving legal problems, and I’m not at all sure that many clients are seeking (much less expecting) wisdom in a lawyer.

I forget my side
of the argument

……………….. by George Swede, from Almost Unseen 

On the other hand, I’ve seen quite a few Overtimer Lawyers stuck in monumental emotional ruts and intellectual deadends (and traffic circles).  Which reminds me.  While writing about the graying bar last week:

  1. I came across an estimate by medical researchers that there may be 8000 physicians with dementia who are still actively treating patients. “Cognitive Impairment in Older Physicians May Be Widespread,” Medscape Medical News (free registration may be required), by Richard Hyler, discussing the work of Greg A. Sachs, M.D. and Caroline N. Harada, M.D.  I had estimated a couple months ago that there might be 10 to 15 thousand lawyers with dementia.  The physician number is pretty scary.  Also,
  2. I was reminded that there are a quarter million practicing lawyers in American who are already over the age of 55 (with that number expected to triple in the next two decades); that 12% of practicing lawyers are over 65; and that 48% of private practitioners are in solo practices, with another 15% in firms having 2 to 5 lawyers. (See American Bar Association, “Lawyer Demographics 2006”) Both logic and studies suggest that it is the solo and small-firm lawyer who is most likely to postpone retirement, while having no plan for the handling of their practice if they become incapacited.  They are also most likely to have Main Street practices with the least sophisticated clients.

 Mohandis Gandhi and Abe Lincoln are probably the best-known historic figures who had been practicing lawyers and are widely thought of as having possessed wisdom.  Most other “wise” (as opposed to merely smart) lawyers that readily come to mind are fictional characters. 

 Leo McKern as Rumpole  RumpoleLeoMcKern


at the height
of the argument      the old couple
pour each other tea

…………………………. by George Swede from Almost Unseen (2000)

GriffithAsMatlock Andy Griffith as Matlock

someone else’s affair
you think…
lanterns for the dead
……………………………… by Kobayashi Issa, translated by David G. Lanoue 

Of course, literature and popular culture are far more likely to portray lawyers who are a bit shy of wise or are wiseguys.  For example, see OldRuin and HeadofChambers in BabyBarista‘s weblog serial.   But, I don’t want to close on a negative note.  Please let us know about elderly lawyers you have encountered who bring a lifetime of accumulated wisdom to the practice of law.  If you’ve got an especially useful definition or test for wisdom, share it with us, too.


MockingbirdPeck  Atticus Finch from to kill a mockingbird 


Divorce proceedings over
wet leaves stick
to my shoes


putting holes
in my argument
the woodpecker


thick fog lifts
unfortunately, I am where
I thought I was

……………….. by George Swede from Almost Unseen

KingsfieldPaperChase  For some readers, Prof. Kingsfield from Paper Chase may be an example of professorial wisdom (or at least tough love).  His ghost is filling in for Prof. Bainbridge today at Blawg Review #107, using what passes for the Socratic Method at many law schools to help illuminate the ideal lawyer weblogging (or, at least, the best thereof over the past week).  


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