Interview with Charles Duhigg: How Legal Can Learn from Airplane Accidents

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Charles Duhigg grew up in a family of lawyers: His sister, brother, mother and father are all trial lawyers in Albuquerque, New Mexico. But Duhigg dropped out of law school and instead got his MBA at Harvard Business School. He then chose journalism as his profession. He landed at the The New York Times, where he won a Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for explanatory reporting. (He confesses that “on most days, [he] regrets not having finished law school.”)

Duhigg’s two best-selling books offer a gold mine of wisdom for lawyers, judges and other legal professionals. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, explores how human habits can trigger success or failure, and what happens when people change those habits. His second book, Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business, “explores the science of productivity, and why, in today’s world, managing how you think — rather than what you think — can transform your life,” explains publisher Random House.

In a recent edition of the Law Technology Now podcast from Legal Talk Network, Duhigg discussed “How Law Firms and Lawyers Can Improve Their Productivity.” One of his most dramatic stories is how team work — rather than a single leader — can literally save lives. Duhigg dissected the fates of two commercial airplanes: one crashed with no survivors; the other landed without a scratch.

“If you have a mental model —  a story you told yourself of how you expect things to unfold — not only does it make you more prepared for that meeting, it also makes you much better prepared when the unexpected happens.”

Duhigg found that people who build “mental models” of what to expect often have better results. Firefighters use that tactic when they enter a room, he notes. Lawyers, judges and other legal workers can do the same. Instead of saying, “I have a meeting at 10 and then I have to meet a client at 11,” savvy lawyers will plan. “I’ve got a meeting at 10 and it’s going to start with Jim bringing up that dumb idea he always brings in — and then Suzie is going to disagree with Jim because Suzie hates Jim — and then I am going to jump in with my idea and I am going to look like a genius.'”

“If you have a mental model —  a story you told yourself of how you expect things to unfold — not only does it make you more prepared for that meeting, it also makes you much better prepared when the unexpected happens,” said Duhigg. “When your boss asks a question out of nowhere, or when someone says something you didn’t expect, you are able to roll with it to anticipate and react to that surprise.”

In Qantas Flight 32, when the alarms went off, the captain closed his eyes for a moment and said to himself, “I can become overwhelmed by all the panic, I can stop thinking and just purely become reactive, but that’s going to crash this plane. What I need to do is, I need to take control, and pretend that this plane is a Cessna— one of the simplest planes on Earth — because imagining it as a Cessna helps me figure out what to pay attention to and what to ignore.”

Qantas Flight 32 arrived intact and with all souls alive. Air France 447 crashed into the ocean, with no survivors. The team had been “trained to react when an alarm went off, rather than taking a step back and thinking,” explained Duhigg.


Charles Duhigg

While mistakes by lawyers rarely have such dire consequences, there are important lessons to learn. Duhigg offers an example: You walk into your office and your pockets are buzzing; you have 100 emails waiting for you; and there are 10 meetings that people are asking to come sit in on. You could spend your entire day simply reacting. Instead, sit down and say to yourself, “Okay, here is how I think the day is going to proceed — between 9 and 11 a.m. what do I want to get done? Here is my top goal, here is what I really want to get done.”

“When I go into the client meeting, I know what the client is going to be worried about: what this is doing to his business? I need to convince him to stop thinking about his business and instead start thinking about the litigation that we are dealing with,” said Duhigg.

And using that same approach is useful for teams, he noted. The captain of the Qantas flight had a ritual of talking with his crew before the flight. “He would make all of his co-pilots tell him stories about what they were going to do in case of an emergency. Where the first place that your eyes are going to go if Engine 2 goes out. If we have a loss of altitude, tell me the first words that are going to come out of your mouth.”

“And then, he would argue with them, kind of push back and say, ‘Well, why is that the first thing you are going to say, why don’t you say this other thing?’ or ‘Are you sure you want to put your eyes there, don’t you want to put your eyes over here?’”

“It’s this act of talking to each other, of questioning each other, of having these conversations that are like intellectual sparring matches,” said Duhigg. “That’s how we learn to become nimble and agile, and that’s how we learn to pivot when we need to if our mental model isn’t working.”

“The great thing about being a lawyer is that this is second nature — to argue the point and think of alternatives — and this is the basis of how the law works,” he said. “And it turns out that the act of arguing, that act of having an intellectual partner, that is what makes us smarter, that is a contemplative routine that we can build into our life that helps us become more mentally nimble.”