Category Archives: The Ethical Lawyer – Legal Ethics Blog

How to Think Clearly and Make Better Decisions: Part 1 – Get out of echo chambers

The ability to think clearly is essential to making better decisions – whether you’re launching a new product, defining a legal strategy, or managing a pandemic. But cognitive biases affect the way we frame issues, interpret data, and come up with ideas.

The human brain is naturally wired to find simple answers, not seek objective truth. It looks for patterns to automate repetitive tasks and decisions. It settles on data points that fit with current perceptions, which may be flawed. While this is fine for routine matters, it can lead to serious errors in high-stakes situations.

It’s not enough to be aware of your blind spots and how they shape beliefs, drive emotions, and influence actions. You also need to safeguard against default thinking on complex issues.

No one is entirely objective in processing information. Cognitive biases are a part of human nature. One of the most common and damaging type is confirmation bias. This leads us to seek out and recall facts that confirm what we already believe or think, and disregard and overlook competing facts that support a different view.

Confirmation bias contributes to division and polarization, where right-wrong, good-evil, dichotomous thinking prevails. Bias, by itself, doesn’t necessarily make you wrong or more intolerant of others you disagree with. But when you don’t see the whole picture (i.e. objective facts and evidence), and see only what you want to see (i.e. facts and evidence confirming your beliefs), you end up with suboptimal solutions.

The first step to thinking clearly and making better decisions is to get out of your echo chambers.

In echo chambers, you are conditioned to distrust contrary views, arguments and information from the “other side.” Competing ideas, beliefs and data points are blocked or ignored. This keeps us in an epistemic bubble, where one is unexposed to contrary views, arguments and information from the “other side.”

Virtual echo chambers

Echo chambers distort reality and manipulate your impression of others. Social media, social networks, and online discussion sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit amplify and reinforce biases. Through AI algorithms, search engines (e.g. Google and Yahoo) and content delivering websites (e.g. YouTube) give us more of what we want and less of what we don’t want. They can also suppress certain types of information.

In today’s attention economy, the most extreme viewpoints and sensationalized headlines get the most clicks. Individuals with neutral or moderate positions tend to avoid the debate, get sucked into the extremes, or are deemed to be clueless.

While modern technology like the Internet allows us to connect regardless of physical distance, it also has its drawbacks. Compared to face-to-face interactions, online communication makes it easier to express outrage over things you oppose and show less tolerance of competing beliefs.

Trolling, cyberbullying and other hostile online behavior are not uncommon, particularly in anonymous postings and through anonymous social media accounts. A faux pas that would be shrugged off or easily resolved in person becomes a major disagreement on the Internet.

Determining intent and understanding context in Twitter feeds, social media content, and even email is difficult. Words have different meanings and may affect each person differently. When we agree with the author’s viewpoint, we tend to assume their values, beliefs and perceptions are in line with our own. When we don’t, we might stereotype and label them negatively.

Communicating on a public medium often makes people more defensive and less likely to concede on valid points or point out areas of agreement. Use private online chats and direct messaging if you really want to encourage healthy discourse.

There is excess information, misinformation, filtered information, and conflicting information. For example, on issues of political controversy, check out both liberal leaning media (e.g. New York Times, MSNBC, The American Independent) and conservative leaning media (e.g. Wall Street Journal, Fox News, Brietbart).

Then search for unmoderated and less exciting information from more independent sources like C-SPAN. You could also tune into YouTube talk shows and podcasts covering in-depth and nuanced conversations on topics of interest.

Being exposed to opposing arguments will burst your epistemic bubble. But it won’t necessarily change your views or shift your positions — especially if you’ve learned, within your echo chamber, to distrust outside sources. Access to more information creates more opportunities to confirm biases. You might feel vindicated (when you receive confirming information) or disgusted (when you receive disconfirming information).

For concessions and agreements to be reached, each side has to earn the other’s trust, which is hard to do. Stay curious. Stay humble. Take time and make space for a well thought-out response, instead of give in to an immediate reaction.

Sometimes you need a digital detox. Read a book instead. Unplug from your devices such as smartphones, televisions, computers, and tablets. Limit your use of social media and get the apps off your phone. If you feel compelled to stay informed, a one-time check at the end of the day is usually more than enough.

Get a good night’s sleep, move, eat well, and practice mindfulness to help you avoid snap judgments. Self care helps you activate the prefrontal cortex of your brain, which is responsible for self-control, critical thinking and decision-making. Go for a long walk or sit in a quiet spot to reflect on information when you’re not emotionally charged and can think more calmly and objectively.

Real-life echo chambers

If you want to detect your blind spots, invite a free exchange of ideas and active discourse with friends, family members and colleagues who hold different beliefs and opinions.

Each must act in good faith, i.e. listen with curiosity, respect divergent viewpoints, refrain from proving the other side wrong or changing the other person’s mind, and find points of agreement. Some individuals are capable of having civil discussions; others are not. Choose wisely.

Discuss the strongest version (steel man) instead of the weakest version (straw man) of the person’s opposing viewpoint. Question what exactly they mean when they use vague terms or loose labels. Engaging in dialectic discourse sharpens your critical thinking skills. It allows you to poke holes at your own biases and recognize either side could be right or wrong. No one has a monopoly on truth, especially on complex and evolving issues.

Ward off first impressions. Avoid making assumptions about the person’s reasons for a particular position. It could be entirely apolitical and based on a common set of ideals. Perhaps your hierarchy of priorities and values simply do not match exactly with theirs. Maybe you just disagree on the approach in reaching a shared objective.

When we consider others’ perspectives and how they came to hold the beliefs and opinions they do (whether through logic or emotion), we can develop more compassion, engage in productive discourse, stop fighting, and learn from each other.

Silo thinking leads us to ignore objective facts, see only what confirms our biases, and overlook important data that do not match preconceptions. Merely getting out of your echo chamber is not enough for you to adapt to new information or change preexisting beliefs. But it will help you understand multiple perspectives, strengthen your thinking, and make fully informed decisions.

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To learn more about thinking clearly and making better decisions, read part 2 (Frame and reframe the problem) and part 3 (Keep experts on tap, not on top) of this multipart article.

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Dyan Williams is a solo lawyer who practices U.S. immigration law and legal ethics at Dyan Williams Law PLLC. She is also productivity coach who helps working parents, lawyers, small business owners and other busy people turn their ideas into action, reduce overwhelm, and focus on what truly matters. She is the author of The Incrementalist: A Simple Productivity System to Create Big Results in Small Steps, an e-book at http://leanpub.com/incrementalist.

Presenting Minnesota CLE live webcast, Thursday, July 2 at 12 pm: Finding Your Rhythm – When to Do What

On Thursday, July 2, join me on Zoom for a Minnesota CLE live webcast, Finding Your Rhythm: When to Do Focused Work, Process Emails, Brainstorm Ideas, and Make Decisions.

Attorneys routinely keep too many things on their to-do list, feel overwhelmed with busyness, and prioritize other people’s requests over their truly important tasks. They are often told to manage their time better, multitask more, work smarter, or put in longer hours to get more done. But attempting to keep up with rising demands while neglecting to consider energy peaks and valleys create an unsustainable path to productivity. 

In this presentation, you will learn how to:

  • Work with your natural rhythm or internal body clock instead of burning yourself out or staying stuck  
  • Use your preferred sleep-wake cycle (circadian rhythm) and rest-activity cycle (ultradian rhythm) to plan your day
  • Choose the best times to perform high cognitive tasks, communicate with clients, spark insights, solve problems, and rest and recharge
  • Boost your energy level and reduce overwhelm by practicing simple daily habits 

Finding your rhythm will help you fulfill your ethical duties of diligence (Rule 1.3), competence (Rule 1.1) and communication (Rule 1.4).

This is a reprise of a webcast CLE that I presented back in December 2019, when most lawyers were commuting to the office instead of working from home or working remotely. In the midst of the pandemic shutdowns and restrictions, it’s especially important to find your rhythm and stay focused on what really matters. 

To register, click HERE

See you there,

Dyan Williams

U.S. Immigration & Legal Ethics Attorney
Author of The Incrementalist: A Simple Productivity System to Create Big Results in Small Steps, an e-book at http://leanpub.com/incrementalist

Co-Presenting Ethics CLE Session, on Sineneng-Smith Case, at 2020 Upper Midwest Immigration Law Virtual Conference, Friday, May 29

The State of Minnesota is about to complete its second week of transitioning from a stay-at-home order to a stay-safe order. More businesses can start to re-open to the public, with certain restrictions, as early as June 1 in the midst of COVID-19.

At the same time, protests over the death of George Floyd on Monday — while he was in Minneapolis Police custody — evolved into riots, looting and arson in the Minneapolis-St. Paul (Twin Cities) area this week. 

In times of chaos and uncertainty, it can be hard to stay grounded, maintain calm, move forward, and appreciate the now. But being fully present is what we must do to keep our center when there is much to fear and grieve. 

Pema Chödrön, Buddhist nun and author of When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, writes: “The state of nowness is available in that moment of squeeze. In that awkward, ambiguous moment is our own wisdom mind. Right there in the uncertainty of everyday chaos is our own wisdom mind.”

Many businesses, including law firms, are operating remotely in some or all aspects during the pandemic. Although various events and conferences were canceled or postponed in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, others are continuing as planned, but virtually. 

On Friday, May 29, from 8 am to 5 pm, the 2020 Upper Midwest Immigration Law Conference will be presented via Zoom, instead of through the in-person event in Downtown Minneapolis that was originally planned. Organized by the Minnesota/Dakotas Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) and The Advocates for Human Rights for the Upper Midwest, this year’s virtual conference sessions will provide critical practice updates and Continuing Legal Education (CLE) credit to immigration attorneys.

This full-day, multi-track virtual CLE will give registered participants access to up to 6 live credit hours and to all sessions on-demand. Attendees may choose sessions individually among four different tracks — Employment, Humanitarian, Litigation and Fundamentals — and are not tied to any one category. 

I am scheduled to co-present with attorneys Alan Goldfarb and Eric Cooperstein at Session 4: “Ethics in Light of the Sineneng-Smith Case” (Employment track) from 2:15 to 3:15 pm. 

On May 7, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 9-0 opinion in this case, which makes immigration lawyers vulnerable to being prosecuted for rendering candid advice to clients who are not in lawful status within the United States. 

Evelyn Sineneng-Smith was convicted of violating 8 U.S.C. § 1324(a)(1)(A)(iv), which imposes criminal penalties on any person who encourages or induces a person to come to, enter, or reside in the United States, in violation of the law. It does not distinguish between criminal offenses and immigration (civil) violations. 

Sineneng-Smith was an immigration consultant in San Jose, California. She assisted clients working without authorization in the United States to file applications for a labor certification program that once provided a path to adjust to lawful permanent resident status. She knew her clients could not meet the statutory application-filing deadline, but still charged each client over $6,000, netting more than $3.3 million.

The Ninth Circuit ruled that 8 U.S.C. § 1324(a)(1)(A)(iv) is unconstitutionally overbroad. On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court held the Ninth Circuit abused its discretion when it decided this question because it was never raised by the defendant. The Court noted that instead of reviewing the case presented by the parties, the Ninth Circuit invited amici to brief and argue issues framed by the panel, including  “[W]hether the statute of conviction is overbroad . . . under the First Amendment.”

By vacating the decision and remanding the case to the Ninth Circuit, on procedural grounds, the U.S. Supreme Court did not address whether the statute is unconstitutional. This leaves lawyers with ethical dilemmas involving their duty to provide competent representation to clients and their duty to avoid the commission of a federal crime under the encouragement and inducement provision. The session on the Sineneng-Smith case will cover ethics concerns for immigration lawyers in light of the Supreme Court’s decision. 

For a description of the 2020 Upper Midwest Immigration Law Conference program, click here. Although the Early-Bird registration ($75 fee) ended on May 8, you can still register for the full price ($100 fee) up to May 29. To sign up, go to https://www.ailamndak.org/product/uppermidwest2020/

The Sineneng-Smith adds another layer of concern not just for attorneys, but also for persons who need candid advice on their options to gain, extend or change their U.S. immigration status. 

Stay well, stay connected,

Dyan Williams
Immigration & Legal Ethics Attorney 
Dyan Williams Law PLLC

Author of The Incrementalist: A Simple Productivity System to Create Big Results in Small Steps

The Incrementalist: A Simple Productivity System to Create Big Results in Small Steps (ebook is out!)

As we move ahead into Mother’s Day weekend, another month of the global pandemic, and the 6th week of a stay-at-home order in my home state, Minnesota, I’m glad to say I started and finished writing my book.

The Incrementalist: A Simple Productivity System to Create Big Results in Small Steps is now out in ebook format. This includes PDF (for computers), EPUB (for phones and tablets) and MOBI (for Kindle). You can take a look inside and read sample pages at https://leanpub.com/incrementalist

I wrote the book within a month by working incrementally on it sentence by sentence, page by page, and chapter by chapter, and building on pre-existing content in prior writings. I chipped away at it in limited but focused time blocks, on the edges of core work activities and daily responsibilities.

This creative project pulled me through feelings of stuckness during the last few weeks. As I made my way through it, I was constantly reminded there is healing in grief, possibility in uncertainty, and progress in chaos.

Even though my business and law practice continue to thrive, the world is different. The changes have required logistical shifts, a different mindset, acceptance of what is, and openness to whatever unfolds.

Even when little seems to be going according to plan and much is outside your control, it’s still essential to get your priorities straight, decide on next action steps, and correct course when you veer off track.

In the book, I explain how to become an INCREMENTALIST to create big results, in small steps, without pushing yourself too far beyond your comfort zone, burning out, and feeling inadequate. You can do great work and stretch your limits, gradually and slowly. Incremental progress helps you gain control, master your craft, and seamlessly integrate all that matters to you.

If you’re having trouble gaining traction on a major project or making a significant change in your life, consider reading The Incrementalist and practicing the 5 principles described in the book.

If you like the book or wish to recommend it to friends, family members, colleagues or anyone else who might find it helpful, please share the link at https://leanpub.com/incrementalist.

When you buy the book on Leanpub, you get free updates of any revised versions I publish on that platform. It doesn’t matter when you bought the book or how much you paid.

There is a 45-day 100% happiness guarantee. This means you can get a 100% refund within 45 days of purchase through Leanpub. I won’t know who buys my book or who requests refunds because purchases are made through the Leanpub platform. But if you’d like to send me questions and comments directly, you can do so!

Whether you’re a current client, a former client, a subscriber to one of my e-newsletters, or a reader of any of my blogs, I thank you for your support.

If you read The Incrementalist, let me know the top three things you found most useful and the top three things you’d like me to explain better in the book. I can’t promise I’ll address every question or comment, but I’ll aim to read each one.

In the midst of challenging and uncertain times, you can still create big results in small steps by becoming an Incrementalist!

To your ongoing progress,

Dyan Williams

Founder & Principal Attorney
Dyan Williams Law PLLC
(612) 225-9900
info@dyanwilliamslaw.com

“The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time.”
 Abraham Lincoln

Maintaining Momentum During a Global Pandemic

The COVID-19 outbreak and restrictions have sparked major changes in just a few weeks. The United States is now deemed the epicenter of the pandemic. More people in my community are now wearing plastic gloves and face masks when they venture out to the grocery store. Daily life is being upended and more businesses have switched to remote work to protect public health and comply with government mandates.

On April 8, in the State of Minnesota, Governor Tim Waltz extended the stay-at-home order through May 4, which restricts people from leaving their homes except for essential activities. Other U.S. states and countries around the world have curfews, self-quarantining directives, and lockdowns of varying degrees. These measures aim to slow the spread of the virus, but they also bring logistical and economic consequences.

As the situation continues to unfold, remote work is being encouraged or required in both small businesses and large organizations. This is a viable alternative if you’re a knowledge worker who can effectively do tasks and complete projects from home. But if remote work amounts to a sudden shift brought on by forces beyond your control, you will likely struggle to stay focused and productive even if you’re otherwise a peak performer.

While I am not new to remote work because I’ve done it successfully for many years, the impact of the changes is not lost on me. At the most basic level, I’ve had to adjust to having my husband working from home and my older child being home-schooled while I continue to operate my business from my home office. There is more of a blending between work and home life, which calls for doubling down on routines, structures and boundaries.

Many of my clients in U.S. immigration and visa matters have been affected by the suspension of routine services at U.S. Embassies and USCIS offices, triggered by COVID-19. While some U.S. immigration agencies continue to function, the temporary closures and travel restrictions have a profound effect on my clientele.

Although I cannot say when exactly things will go back to or close to “normal,” we know these measures are temporary and will lift at some point in the future.

If you’re a client in my U.S. immigration practice, I thank you for your trust, patience and positivity. I’m behind on some target completion dates, and this is by no means due to procrastination or lack of diligence. But like many others, I’m making progress at a slower pace.

If you’re an attorney or other knowledge worker who can perform duties remotely, I assure you this setup has tremendous advantages. If you’re just starting out with remote work, it might be overwhelming for you, even after all your cybersecurity, document management, online communications, and other systems are installed.

For techniques on how to overcome the 3 big obstacles to thriving in remote work, I encourage you to read my newest articles on my productivity blog:

Overcoming Obstacles to Thriving in Remote Work: Part 1 – Asynchronous Communication

Overcoming Obstacles to Thriving in Remote Work: Part 2 – Blurred Lines

Overcoming Obstacles to Thriving in Remote Work: Part 3 – Competing Priorities

In the midst of a global pandemic that brings restlenesses and unpredictability, we can continue to set the wheels in motion, take steps forward, and maintain momentum to reach desired results. Look for the silver linings because they are there. You just need to notice them.

As with any other crisis, this too will pass and, in the meantime, you can turn this huge obstacle into a unique opportunity.

Stay well. Stay healthy. Stay connected.

Dyan Williams

Founder & Principal Attorney
Dyan Williams Law PLLC
(612) 225-9900
info@dyanwilliamslaw.com