David Brooks Brilliant Column on Outsider-Insiders, and its Relevance to Our 100% Access Movement

David Brooks  had a brilliant column in the New York Times on June 25, 2016.  However, it was marred by a serious error that, while irrelevant to the force of the core idea, means that it is much less likely to be taken with the seriousness that it deserves.  Indeed, the error leads Brooks to miss a whole area of implication.

The column itself is headlined At the Edge of Inside.  The core idea is that:

[Beyond insider sand outsider] there’s also a third position in any organization: those who are at the edge of the inside. These people are within the organization, but they’re not subsumed by the group think. They work at the boundaries, bridges and entranceways.  .   .

A person at the edge of inside can see what’s good about the group and what’s good about rival groups. [Franciscan priest Richard]Rohr writes, “A doorkeeper must love both the inside and the outside of his or her group, and know how to move between these two loves.”

A person at the edge of inside can be the strongest reformer. This person has the loyalty of a faithful insider, but the judgment of the critical outsider. Martin Luther King Jr. had an authentic inner experience of what it meant to be American. This love allowed him to critique America from the values he learned from America. He could be utterly relentless in bringing America back closer to herself precisely because his devotion to American ideals was so fervent. .  .  .

 Rohr writes, “You have learned the rules well enough to know how to ‘break the rules properly,’ which is not really to break them at all, but to find their true purpose: ‘not to abolish the law but to complete it.’”

.  .  .  . [A] person on the edge of inside neither idolizes the Us nor demonizes the Them. Such a person sees different groups as partners in a reality that is paradoxical, complementary and unfolding.  .  .  .

When people are afraid or defensive, they have no tolerance for the person at the edge of inside. They want purity, rigid loyalty and lock step unity. But now more than ever we need people who have the courage to live on the edge of inside, who love their parties and organizations so much that they can critique them as a brother, operate on them from the inside as a friend and dauntlessly insist that they live up to their truest selves.

I would like to think that is the perfect description of the 100% access to justice movement, and particularly the Self Represented Litigation Network.  We, all of us, are part of an organization, but we are also outsiders who take a broader view, and are constantly trying to get all our organizations to do much better.  We agree that LSC and community-based legal aid do a lot of good, but we do not think that they alone offer the full solution, and indeed could do far more.  We love the changes in the courts, but think they have a long way to go it we are to get to 100% access.  We appreciate the organized bar, but demand far ore in real terms than has been done so far.

Hopefully, as explained in the Brooks column, we love the components, but we see they are not perfect.  (At an interview with NLADA, over ten years ago, I was asked why I wanted to be part of the leadership of an organization of which I was so often critical.  My answer — “you may be a dysfunctional family, but you are MY family.”

I particularly love the total on-pointedness of Brooks’ legal reference, quoting Rohr : “You have learned the rules well enough to know how to ‘break the rules properly,’ which is not really to break them at all, but to find their true purpose: ‘not to abolish the law but to complete it.’”

That is exactly what we have done time and again, with rethinking the role of court staff so they can provide legal information without being non-neutral, with re-conceptualizing judicial neutrality so that judges can be both engaged and neutral, with pushing the argument that expanding what non-lawyers can do is not inconsisten with protecting professionalism, and with clarifying that unbundling is not inconsistent with an appropriate attorney-client relationship.

We have both have perspective and credibility, and hopefully we will continue to earn it.

However, back to the specific problem with the Brooks column.  I just can not personally agree with the implications of these assertions:

These insiders are in the rooms when the decisions are made. Hillary Clinton, for example, is now at the core of the Democratic Party.

Then there are outsiders. They throw missiles from beyond the walls. They are untouched by internal loyalties and try to take over from without. Donald Trump is a Republican outsider.

In fact, in their own ways, both are “insider-outsiders.”  In Trumps case he is, at least to hear him tell it, hugely rich and at the center of events. In Clinton’s case, she has tried to be a change agent all her life, even if you may disagree with some of her efforts.

What this leads me to is an important distinction.  The real question is what people do with their “insider-ousidee” status.  Do they use their ability to move between institutions for selfish ends, or do they have a vision for how to make the world better, and try to use their unusual status to move it forward.

As with so much else in the world, it’s not where you stand, or what you have, but how you use them.  (And, I hope that you do not have to agree with my analysis of the candidates to see the value of both levels of the broader analysis.

I think I will be using the “insider/outsider” concept for the rest of my life.  Thank to David Brooks.  Now, please, Mr Books,  just take off the last of your now very flimsy partisan blinders.

P.S.  Claudia Johnson adds this comment:

Because the ways in which technology is being used is opening new career paths for different skill sets and levels of assistance and services, it is more important now than ever to make sure that groups making decisions do not fall into the “groupthink” fallacy. Really great projects and opportunities have missed their mark, because the group that made initial decisions fell into this trap. Groupthink is such a problem, that in most top public policy schools, it is studied in the core public policy analysis curriculum. When I was at the Goldman School of Public Policy, we spent a lot of time working on the case study of the Bay of Pigs invasion, followed by the bombing of Pearl Harbor where warnings were ignored. The more homogeneous and cohesive the group, the higher the risk to fall into the groupthink trap.

Stereotypes and implicit biases of self represented litigants will lead to groupthink as we develop solutions to the ATJ challenge. Groups making decisions about ATJ initiatives need to guard against groupthink by including others different type of organization, type of service background and experience, from other areas of the country doing similar work, different training and experience, different demographics. So for example, a group making decisions about applying a technology to SRLs should include members of the court (various parts of the court beyond court administration and IT, also self help centers and front line support, even interpreters), legal aid (including LSC and non LSC groups) pro bono projects, the Bar, and the appropriate substantive sections of a local Bar, and practicing attorneys in the relevant area of law (in the public and private sector), as well as social agencies that work with the populations most likely being impacted negatively by the decision.

If you have a homogeneous group making decisions about tech applications to ATJ challenges–and you happen to have an insider-outsider, ask them who else you could invite–to minimize the risk of group think. And if the insider-outside challenges the assumptions being made, thank them for that. They are helping your group think clearly.

Great post Richard! Good reminder to guard against groupthink–and to listen to those who are insider-outsiders. So lucky we have these resources in our community.


About richardzorza

I am deeply involved in access to justice and the patient voice movement.
This entry was posted in 100% Access Strategy and Campaign, ABA, Bar Associations, Judicial Ethics, Legal Aid, Legal Ethics, LSC, Non-Lawyer Practice, SRLN, Unbundling. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to David Brooks Brilliant Column on Outsider-Insiders, and its Relevance to Our 100% Access Movement

  1. Cristina Llop says:

    Richard, just really want to thank you for writing about this. I love this concept and I feel, as you point out, that it really describes many of our roles in our respective organizations or fields (and personal/political lives too!). I haven’t had the words before, defaulting to “i like to work on changing the system from within” but i think this really gets at it much more eloquently and deeply and thoughtfully. So thank you!

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