Legal professionals tend to focus on rules, policies, oaths, etc., but this isn’t enough when it comes to ethical decision-making. JoAnn Hathaway and Molly Ranns welcome Victoria Vuletich to explain the components of ethical wellness and a variety of dynamics that influence problem solving. Victoria offers insights on how ethical wellness and moral resilience affect the outcomes of ethical dilemmas often faced by legal professionals.
Victoria Vuletich is the CEO and founder of Ethics Squared LLC.
Molly Ranns: Hello and welcome to another edition of the State Bar of Michigan on Balance Podcast on Legal Talk Network. I’m Molly Ranns.
JoAnn Hathaway: And I’m JoAnn Hathaway. We are very pleased to have Victoria Vuletich, Esquire join us today as our guest to talk about Ethical Wellness in Your Law Firm. Victoria has years of experience in ethics, both with the State Bar of Michigan and Western Michigan University Cooley’s Law School and even beyond that. Victoria left teaching and created Ethics Squared, a corporation, to provide education consulting and coaching services to organizations. So Victoria, would you share some more information about yourself with our listeners?
Victoria Vuletich: As you mentioned, you and I, we used to work together at the State Bar of Michigan where I was staff ethics counsel and I have spent most of my career teaching people about ethics rules, ethics laws, oaths, oath of professional conduct, oath of professionalism and what I like to call ethical knowledge.
I started Ethics Squared because after all these years of trying to teach people about ethics rules, I see good, smart, well-intentioned people including myself make decisions that fall a little short. I’ve been fascinated and frustrated by that question throughout my career, as it what makes people in the moment make decisions that they wouldn’t normally make otherwise. And I’ve discovered just a whole world of really fascinating things that I really am eager to bring to people and organizations because it will help us all be our better selves.
Molly Ranns: Thank you, Victoria. As the director of the Lawyers and Judges Assistance Program. This question is of particular interest to me. Can you help our listeners understand what ethical wellness is?
Victoria Vuletich: Sure. I’ve mentioned previously that in the legal profession, we tend to concentrate on rules and policies, codes and oaths, and don’t get me wrong, these are all important and necessary, but they’re not enough. And they’re not enough for two reasons.
The first reason is that oftentimes in the moment, we don’t recognize that an ethics issue is upon us and the reason we don’t recognize that we’re facing an ethics issue is due to lots of factors. One of the biggest ones being cognitive decision-making dynamics, which we all engage in, despite our best intentions and these are often subconscious. And even when we do see an ethics issue, there are other cognitive dynamics, which occur again in the moment that force rules policies, oath, and codes, all that stuff we spend so much time learning back into our subconscious or they diminish in relevance in our minds.
And you couple that with the fact that lawyers have a unique set of psychological traits, which can impact our ability to be ethical in the moment. It’s really fascinating, we score much higher than the average population in things like skepticism, urgency and analytical thinking which I refer to as being in our heads, a good tale of the time.
And we score lower than the average population in things like resilience and sociability. And these things track was some of these cognitive dynamics and make it challenging for lawyers to be ethically well and as you know already, Molly, it can impact our ability to be generally well physically and mentally.
And so, ethical wellness is about learning about these cognitive dynamics, the psychological traits and other important components of ethical wellness so that we can be the people and the organizations that we all want to be. And so, my first call to action is that we need to expand continuing legal education to include ethical wellness and not just ethical knowledge that we have really focused on for most of our history in the legal profession.
JoAnn Hathaway: So Victoria, what are the components of ethical wellness?
Victoria Vuletich: Well, besides these common cognitive dynamics involved in ethics decision-making, the other components of ethical wellness include brain chemistry that mishmash of hormones and neurotransmitters in our brains at any moment, ethical and moral resilience. A real fun one is personality science dynamics and spirituality.
Molly Ranns: Victoria, could you tell us a little bit more about each of these components and maybe giving us examples for our listeners of each?
Victoria Vuletich: Sure. I love to talk about the cognitive ethics decision-making dynamics. They are really fascinating. And one that’s very common is what is referred to as ethical fading. In lawyer language, we would say that deals with how we frame the issue.
So for example, if a lucrative client knowingly asks us to engage in marginal misconduct, they’re just not ignorant about what would be an ethical violation. Say in the discovery process, whether we frame that moment, we frame that request as a business decision or as an ethics decision, that will often drive the result.
And so, framing it has a business decision allows more considerations to be put into the mix and the ethical issue fades in the analysis and has given less weight than it deserves. So what do I mean by that practically?
I’ve heard from attorneys one or two of them in large law firms where this client made up a significant amount of their billables, their book of business and they were asked to do something unethical by that very lucrative client and they flat out fired the client even though the client brought in a lot of money to the law firm because they viewed it as an ethical issue.
If you frame it as a business issue then you get into the decision of weighing the ethics versus how much money that client might be bringing into the firm and trying to keep that client, keep their business while still trying to fulfill your ethical duties. And when you have a client that is knowingly asking you to engage in misconduct, that’s something that’s not likely to resolve because that’s how the client operates and that’s their values. So that’s one example.
Brain chemistry is another really fun area and research has indicated that when humans have elevated levels of cortisol and testosterone in their system at the same time that those two hormonal combinations are associated with unethical behavior.
So cortisol is a hormone released in the body whenever we feel threatened and examples of behavior that are encouraged by testosterone include competition, aggression and mating and it’s really fascinating.
I’ve learned that normally these two hormones work against each other to regulate dominant and competitive behavior because it’s not always in our best interest in communities to have everybody be dominant and competitive all the time. So when both cortisol and testosterone levels are high, it’s more likely that if we perceive a threat that we’re going to respond with aggression even if there’s no real threat presented.
And let me give you the best example of that, which I confess that I have engaged in and it’s the neutral email. So how many times have we read an email and had this visceral reaction and I’ll be like, “Oh there’s that email from central admin again and I can’t believe that they’re asking for this? Don’t they know how much work this is and this just looks like such a stupid reason. I don’t understand why they’re asking this,” and I get all bent out of shape and steams coming out of my ears and I’m all grumpy and then the next day, I go back and I read that email and I can’t quite figure out why I was upset and this happened so often thankfully, I know well enough to not usually not reply right away. And now I’ve learned that what happened was, it was likely that my cortisol and testosterone levels were high when I read that email and what I perceived as a threat wasn’t really a threat even though I was tempted to act aggressively.
And so the good news is that we can manage our brain chemistry and we can decrease our cortisol levels with simple in the moment steps. So playing relaxing music. And I love this one, I learned that simply eating a carb with a protein, say a turkey sandwich or eggs and toast can help us generate some calming and feel good brain chemistry.
So if you’re having a stressful day, eat healthy, grab the turkey sandwich or have eggs and toast. And my favorite one, this is really bizarre are probiotics. Apparently, there’s a lot of research out there that say our gut bacteria influence our mood. If you’re like me, you don’t like yogurt. There are supplements you can take. So it turns out that what’s good for our body is also good for our brain chemistry, which will give us a better opportunity to be ethical and to be the people we want to be.
Ethical and moral resilience is a huge thing right now. We’re all getting a crash course on ethical and moral resilience with the pandemic. Here we have attorneys handling serious hearings on Zoom while kids, pets, household activities are all under foot and it’s just crazy. And we are dealing with our own grief, our own loss that the pandemic has brought all at the same time when we’re trying to do lawyering with very new tools and under a lot of uncertainty.
Our brethren in the medical field have it worse because they go into the hospitals every day and they can’t always meet the level of care that their system standards expect of them and particularly their moral standards. Our doctors and nurses and other people who work in the hospitals, they’re there because they want to help people. And when circumstances overwhelm our ability to do what we want to do, they give the level of care that we want to give that becomes a huge issue.
Personality science dynamics are another fun one. This is the intersection between psychological traits, personality traits and our personal values coming together. Some of our personality traits and psychological traits operate at a subconscious level and it’s important to remember that stress, when we feel stressed that that’s often when we are in a situation where two or more positive values are in conflict with each other. So what do I mean by that?
Well, as lawyers, we score higher than the average population on urgency. We are focused on task accomplishment, we are under time deadlines and that can conflict with our own personal values of confidence of doing a thorough and good job with whatever we are undertaking. So we get really stressed when we feel like we don’t have time to do things the right way. So being able to reframe that, being able to recognize that, being able to realize that this is a conflict between values, helps us reframe and perhaps come up with better solutions to the situation.
And I just want to mention too a little difference, a little odd thing that I think we have in the legal profession. We are very big on mentoring in the legal profession where we take a more seasoned lawyer and we pair them with a newer lawyer and have them mentor us. What we don’t do is we don’t do a lot of coaching where we as individuals go to somebody who’s trained in personality science or psychology to find insight about ourselves. And I think that’s a really important ethical wellness tool and simply, it will help us be a happier people.
And the last factor of ethical wellness is spirituality. We don’t talk about it very often in the law and we should. We are in a high-stakes profession and there is a lot of fear in our profession. And the most content lawyers that I know are ones who have a belief and value system beyond the practice of law. They’re grounded and they’re resilient and we as lawyers as a whole tend to not be very resilient. So we should be talking more about spirituality.
JoAnn Hathaway: Are there other dynamics impacting lawyers and law firm ethics, Victoria?
Victoria Vuletich: Yes, there are and I’m so glad you asked that question, JoAnn because this is part of the reason that I have started Ethic Squared and working with organizations. Because like all organizations, culture is everything. Peter Drucker who was a famous executive once said that “culture eats strategy for breakfast” and I would tweak that to say that culture eats continuing legal education for breakfast. And there are lots of several big cultural drivers.
And number one in the legal profession is time famine. The busier and more rushed people are; the less cognitive resources they have for good decision-making. And it increases the odds of us making kind of system one instinctive choices as opposed to our should choices. It means that we’re reacting subconsciously and remember that we as attorneys are naturally wired for urgency. So anytime, we’re in a fast-paced environment, it’s very, very hard for us to make really thoughtful decisions.
And uncertainty, uncertainty is a catalyst for ethical fading, which is I talked about earlier. In environments of high uncertainty, individuals can downplay the ethical ramifications of a decision. There’s so much uncertainty and there are so many other considerations to people that are swirling around people that we could have an ethics decision in front of us but we’re seeing other factors. And that, if we’re focusing on these other factors, it’s going to fade the relevance of the ethical decision cause us to not get adequate weight.
Interestingly, uncertainty in the organizational culture was cited as the second biggest driver behind the great resignation. And this is also related to the third biggest driver of the great resignation, which is a high level of innovation in the organization. Innovation has become a real buzz bird in all sectors of the marketplace including the law, but it turns out that the fast-paced and constant change inherent in highly innovative companies are not sustainable for many people over time. And in case you’re wondering, a toxic work environment was by far, the leading driver of the great resignation, toxic work environments were identified by resigners as ones where there was little support for diversity, equity and inclusion. Employees were treated disrespectfully and an unethical culture. And what’s interesting is that all of these diversity, equity and inclusion ethics and simply disrespectful behavior, all arise from the same dynamics that we’re talking about in terms of ethical wellness, cognitive decision-making dynamics, personality science, physical and emotional, and mental wellness.
Now the other one that’s really important is moral awareness. Viktor Frankl, who is a famous concentration camp survivor and a psychologist. He was the author of a great book called ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’. I highly recommend it if you haven’t read it. And in that book, he said, between stimulus and response, there is a space and in that space is our power to choose our response. And in our response, lies our growth and our freedom. And I love that because what he’s talking about is we have this space in our brain and if we are on autopilot, if we’re not cognizant of an intentional then we’re going to be on autopilot and we’re not going to be free. Anything that grabs our attention is going to drive our emotions, drive our decisions, drive our behavior.
So protecting that small powerful space in our brain between stimulus and response is so important to ethics and our overall well-being. This has only become much more important in our day and age where we have actors in the marketplace intentionally trying to manipulate that space in our brain. Either to buy something or as we all know too much, our political actors in the marketplace that are trying to make us feel something, make us think something, make them give us their money and trying to persuade us to vote for a certain candidate.
And so, I get it, you know, if you’re like me that oftentimes, it feels like the world is unraveling and I catch myself doomed scrolling. And whenever I start to feel that when I actually have a physical reaction to that, I’m frightened. I don’t like the world. I’m starting to be angry at people I don’t even know. And so, that’s a sign that I need to go on a digital diet and I put my laptop down and put my cellphone down and I intentionally protect that space.
And I am very intentional about curating what goes into my brain in that space. I found it to be profoundly powerful.
Molly Ranns: I love it a digital diet. Victoria, this has been such a helpful conversation. Is there anything else you would like to say on this topic before we wrap up today?
Victoria Vuletich: Well, yes. I just wanted to say that I’ve spent my entire career in ethical knowledge advising, teaching and coaching people about ethics rules and codes and laws and oaths. And as I said, previously, I have seen too many smart, well-intentioned people including myself make decisions that failed to meet our own standards. And this is because of the dynamics that we’ve talked about today. And my mission, I am fired up about this.
My mission for the rest of my career is to get people excited about ethics, learning about these ethical dynamics is really interesting. It’s fun and it’s enormously helpful on a practical day-to-day basis. It really has that power to make our lives better even in the midst of uncertainty and fear.
As attorneys, whether we like it or not, society looks to us as leaders and our society is starved right now for ethical and moral leadership. And we have the ability to give that if we’re willing to become ethically well and to learn more about culture and decision-making dynamics and human behavior. Each and every one of us pledged at one point in our lives. We took an oath to protect and to serve justice and I think we owe it to society to be ethically knowledgeable and to be ethically well. So thank you so much for having me and letting me stand on the soapbox and shout from the skies. It has really been fun to be here with you both.
JoAnn Hathaway: Well, it has been a pleasure to have you Victoria. And I think both Molly and I agree. This is a podcast that we would like to continue for another 30 minutes because every — all of the insights and wisdom that you have shared, I think can be so helpful to so many people. So it does look though as though we’ve come to the end of our show. We’d like to thank our guest today, Victoria Vuletich for a wonderful program.
Molly Ranns: Victoria, if our guests would like to follow up with you? How can they reach you?
Victoria Vuletich: Sure. I’ll give you my email address. It’s [email protected]. We have to put the LLC in there. That’s important. So it’s [email protected] and the website is as ethicssquaredllc.com.
Molly Ranns: Thank you so much, Victoria.
Victoria Vuletich: Thank you.
Molly Ranns: This has been another edition of the State Bar of Michigan’s on Balance Podcast.
JoAnn Hathaway: I’m JoAnn Hathaway.
Molly Ranns: And I’m Molly Ranns. Until next time, thank you for listening.
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Podcast transcription by Tech-Synergy.com