Metaphors Matter

In 1980, linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson shook up the prim and proper world of linguistics by their publication of "Metaphors We Live By." They argued that metaphors are not matters of linguistic construction. Metaphors extend well beyond language. Rather, they are primarily a conceptual construction. Metaphors structure what we perceive, how we think and how we act. Reminding us that the essence of a metaphor is an understanding and experience of one thing in terms of another, Lakoff and Johnson examined as their first metaphor for analysis "argument is struggle." That metaphor, they maintained, structures what we do and how understand what we are doing when we argue.

Lakoff and Johnson suggested that we talk about arguments as struggle because we conceive of them that way - and we act according to the way we conceive of things. In arguments, we "attack a position." Claims are "indefensible." Criticisms are "right on target." Argument are "shot down." In structuring an argument, we look for "new lines of attack." We "gain ground" in making an argument or we are "wiped out." Finally, arguments are "won" or "lost."

Lakoff and Johnson warn that one of the difficulties of a metaphorical concept is that it can keep us from focusing on other aspects of the engagement that are inconsistent with that metaphor. For example, the argument is struggle metaphor causes us to lose sight of the cooperative and developmentally creative aspects of argument.

The limitation of the argument is struggle metaphor is that it structures our belief of what arguments are, channels our actions in a certain direction consistent with that belief and allows us to ignore opportunities that are inconsistent with the metaphor's premise.

So, please power up your Internet search engine and type in the words "lawyers" and "jokes." I send you here because the structure of humor is premised on the cultural acceptance of certain concepts, which are entirely metaphorical. That is, in order to be funny, a punchline generally has to be culturally known and accepted. The stretch or tension of the metaphorical concept is the energy behind the humor. As I engaged in my search, I found a predominant lawyer metaphor. At first, I thought it was lawyers are sharks, amoral predators, sea scavengers, unconscious, killing machines. Remarkably, this metaphor not only holds ground with legal critics, but finds considerable acceptance with the profession itself. Lawyers talk about some law firms as "shark tanks." We also hold certain practices to be "predatory." James Woods portrayed Sebastian Stark, a hard-driven, unscrupulous defense attorney turned prosecutor for the television series "Shark," which ran from 2006 to 2008. But I found other metaphorical candidates. One was vultures. Another was snakes. Using, no doubt, a much less rigorous methodology than Lakoff and Johnson, I concluded from my research that the predominant American metaphorical concept of our profession is that lawyers are non-human.

Lakoff and Johnson are the first to point out that the metaphorical concept is not truth. It is a belief, usually derived from culture and/or experience. From my perspective, this lawyer as non-human metaphor is all too pervasive in our culture. It damages not only those of us in the profession, but those who believe it to true about the profession. As Lakoff and Johnson note, metaphors "create realities for us." In this sense, metaphors can be self-fulfilling prophecies. What is a prominent belief becomes a guideline for action, which reinforces the metaphor. Thus, in its simplest form, a client may seek out counsel known for ruthlessness and, in the effort to satisfy the client's expectations, the lawyer supplies ruthlessness. And if this behavior proves effective, it is reinforced as a modality of successful lawyering, despite its incremental damage to the practitioner and the profession. Others, modeling on the ruthless lawyer's success spread the conduct, until it tips to become the predominant professional modality. As Lakoff and Johnson observe "What is at issue is not the truth or falsity of a metaphor, but the perceptions and inferences that follow from it and the actions that are sanctioned by it."

I would like to propose a new metaphor for the profession. It is one that I adopted a few years ago for my own practice. Unfortunately, it is esoteric; it requires explanation; and consequently and it is not particularly catchy. But I previously have offered it to hundreds of lawyers to whom I have made presentations. And, it appears to have some traction. I am confident that one of you will find a way to improve on it. You ready? Here goes: Law practice is Aikido.

Aikido is a unique martial art form, created by Morihei Ueshiba in the early 20th century. Ueshiba, also known as O Sensei, or "Great Teacher," developed Aikido out of his need to harmonize his passivist philosophy with his extraordinary martial skills. Even into his 80s, Ueshiba could disarm any foe, resist any number of attackers and pin an opponent with a single finger. In essence, Aikido teaches that when confronted by an attack, the Aikidoist does not strike, but rather enters and blends with the energy of the attacker. That is, he or she moves toward the attacker, and then, at the last moment, slightly off the line of attack, turns so as to look momentarily at the situation from the attacker's viewpoint. As described by George Leonard in "The Way of Aikido," "From this position, many possibilities exist, including a good chance of reconciliation."

According to Leonard, Aikido conceptualizes an entirely different perspective of what an opponent is. That is, Aikido adopts on alternative metaphor. Leonard instructs Aikidoists to "be especially welcoming to your opponent. He or she is your guest, someone who has come to help you play the game. The better the opponent, the better the game. Accordingly, your opponent is to be treated in a gracious manner."

Nothing about this attitude suggests that you bring anything less to the game than your full attention, energy and competency. In fact, Leonard further instructs "Never ease up, this is the finest gift you can offer a true competitor. ... You can expect the same in return."

By substituting "game" for "conflict," Aikido shifts its entire focus, energy and tone from struggle to active, creative engagement. The "Ki" of Aikido references universal energy, the same energy known in Chinese healing systems as "chi" and the focus of which is concentrated in the "chakras" in another healing tradition. Ki unites all life forms. Thus, a "hit" in Aikido is recontextualized as a transfer of energy. The recipient of the energy considers it a gift to be put to more positive use.

And, consistent with Aikido's metaphorical framework, the teaching, "protect the attacker," is neither radical nor paradoxical. The moves in Aikido are designed to protect both the one attacked and, as possible, the attacker. That is the nature of the game.

Consider the differences in the quality of the legal profession if the predominant metaphor shifted to lawyers as Aikidoists. If Aikido became the prevailing concept of the profession, what opportunities would reside with individual practitioners, the profession at large and the culture in which our services are performed?

As Leonard notes, to view a situation from the attacker's viewpoint, while remaining centered and balanced, can lead to seemingly miraculous outcomes. Or, in the words of Ueshiba, "The way of a warrior ... is to stop trouble before it starts. ... The way of a warrior is to establish harmony."

What if we were to substitute in place of argument is struggle the metaphor argument is collaborative, creative, opportunity? How would our lives be better?

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