We spend a lot of time campaigning against the impact of stereotypes, so it might seem strange that this article explores the question ‘Do lawyers have a type?’. Should we be putting lawyers into a box? Many researchers have observed that lawyers do have a type. Is it nature or nurture? What does all of this mean for your firm and its relationships? Let’s find out!
What does the research say about lawyers' personality?
Lawyers are pessimistic
The first body of research suggests that lawyers are pessimistic. Canadian litigator, Brook Greenberg, has written about research that shows lawyers to be more pessimistic than the general population. This is made worse by their law school training, which leaves law school students even more pessimistic – perhaps because it is the pessimistic students that perform the best (Satterfield et al).
Lawyers are trained to identify risk, so pessimism (prudence) is seen as a good thing. It’s rewarded. The problem with pessimism is that it also presents a higher risk for those individuals to have mental health challenges.
Many studies have shown that lawyers are more prone to depression and anxiety than the general population. “In a 2023 study on the link between lawyers’ stress and suicidal thoughts, 66% of respondents said that their time in the legal profession had been detrimental to their mental health, and 46% of them said they were considering leaving the profession due to stress or burnout”. (Thomson Reuters, 2023)
Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, has written that lawyers are unhappy because of the tendency to pessimism and also due to the conditions they find themselves in (high pressure, and at the junior end, low decision latitude). He notes pessimists will view bad events as unchangeable. The optimist, in contrast, sees setbacks as temporary. They are more resilient.
Daicoff (2004) found that lawyers as a group have a slight tendency towards introversion, intuition, and judging (over extroversion, sensing, and perceiving). Furthermore, there is an overwhelming tendency to thinking over feeling. One study found that 75% of lawyers exhibit the thinking preference.
Later research, using the now-preferred Big Five theory of personality, found that traits in lawyers include neuroticism, competitiveness, aggression, introversion, perfectionism, cynicism, and a strong preference for thinking over feeling (James, 2012).
We prefer to think about behavioural preferences than personality types, but personality type research findings throw up some interesting considerations for us around diversity of thought. If firms have a group of individuals with predominantly the same preferences, how does that impact diverse thinking?
Rainmakers and their Egos
Dr Larry Richard has also been researching lawyer personality. He has found that rainmakers – those individuals who are most successful at selling – have a higher Ego Drive than their fellow partners. This is a desire to persuade others for the mere sake of persuasion. They are also more resilient. This is in the context of a population that Dr Richard has found is more sceptical than the average population, has a higher sense of urgency, a higher need for autonomy and a lower desire for sociability.
Many of these traits map into some of the more traditional personality markers – for example, introverts in general have less of a drive to be with others, so the sociability measure is unsurprising.
Is it nature or nurture?
Many a psychologist has turned to answer this question! Daicoff (2004) has found that people who are accepted into law school tend to have greater needs for leadership, dominance, attention and achievement and prefer intellectual over emotional matters – perhaps suggesting an element of self-selection. However, she also refers to studies that found that students with a “feeling” style of decision-making on the MBTI dropped out of law school at four times the rate of students with a “thinking” style. This is likely tied into what is rewarded at law school.
Certain traits are likely to be part of a lawyer’s training (scepticism, thinking and perfectionism in particular) and so as with so much in psychology, there is likely to be a mix of nature and nurture here.
What does all of this mean for your law firm?
First of all, these findings are interesting for the firm at large to consider. There is so much that has been written about the need for diversity in all its forms within organisations. In a profession which seems to prefer one personality type, what does that mean for diverse thinking? How can this be brought about and what else can be rewarded? We have researched the impact of the perceived personality traits of partners, on gender balance. Is this the natural progression of what is seen in law school, compounded at the highest level?
Pessimism might have a role to play in analysing a contract or in the context of a dispute, but the implications for mental health are concerning. The environment has a big part to play – and this is arguably within a firm’s control – but if firms have a population that has a higher likelihood of unhappiness, perhaps more should be done to build resilience before the environment takes its toll.
What does this mean for your lawyer-client relationships?
We have built a business on the belief that for firms to have strong client relationships they need to build trust (which includes meeting clients at an emotional level) and that to actively listen and respond fully to client needs they must build emotional intelligence.
Researchers agree, Kelton writes “ The lawyer’s ability to integrate emotions and cognition can transform the lawyer-client relationship into a richer and deeper trust relationship. All lawyers and clients benefit when lawyers understand, appreciate, and apply emotional intelligence skills……The lawyer who manages the client’s emotions enables the client to feel less chaotic. Moreover, the lawyer who manages his or her own emotions knows how to intelligently engage or disengage from emotions, instead of being controlled by emotions." (Kelton, 2015)
Is it wrong to categorise lawyers?
We have already noted that we prefer to speak in terms of behaviours rather than personality. You can see more about that here. We also write often about the dangers of heuristics and stereotypes and the need to “think slow”.
With every categorisation, there will be those who fit and those who don’t. Everyone is individual and shaped by their environment. Whilst the research is helpful, it doesn’t define everyone in your organisation.
However, what this research perhaps points to is a need to be more aware of what behaviours show up in your firm, and to be mindful of what is rewarded. Who steps away as a result? What is done to champion difference in your firm and how often does that show up? Finally, how much is done to develop the emotional skills that are so fundamental to relationships, both in and outside of your firm?
If you want to explore what types of lawyers your firm has to build stronger relationships, get in touch.