Research has found that the kinds of personality traits that characterise lawyers – and which can help them to be proficient lawyers – can inhibit their effectiveness as leaders. Dr Larry Richard has been studying legal professionals for over twenty years, and his research has confirmed that the majority of successful lawyers share common personality traits that distinguish them from the general public.
These “lawyer personality traits” have broad implications for the management of lawyers, the cultivation of rainmakers, the retention of associates and a range of other critical issues in the day-to-day practice of law.
We know from many years of research that personality traits remain relatively stable over time, which lends a level of predictability within performance, therefore data can be used to improve hiring and management. So, for example, if you are hiring a lateral associate and you want to increase the odds of hiring an individual who will become a strong business generator as a partner, you can gather data using an assessment that will increase your odds of hiring an associate with rainmaking potential.
Personality exerts a potent influence on virtually all aspects of law firm life. In recent years, managing partners, especially in larger firms, have come to appreciate, in a large part due to practical needs, the importance of understanding these factors.
In larger firms that Dr Richard has profiled, the trait known as Scepticism is consistently the highest scoring trait among lawyers, with lawyers averaging around the 90th percentile. People with high scores in this trait tend to be sceptical, even cynical, judgmental, questioning, argumentative and somewhat self-protective. People with low scores tend to be accepting of others, trusting, and give others the benefit of the doubt.
These high levels of Scepticism explain many of the frustrations encountered in trying to manage lawyers. As Dr Richard eloquently puts it ‘’managing lawyers is akin to herding cats’’. Firstly, it’s likely that higher levels of this trait are important for success as a lawyer in many areas of practice such as litigation, tax or M&A work. Secondly, the average person tends to use his or her stronger personality traits across all situations, rather than turning them on and off at will. Thus, if the profession attracts highly sceptical individuals, these sceptical lawyers will exhibit this trait not only when they’re representing a client but in other roles which might actually require lower levels of the trait. In other words, the sceptical litigator may be well suited for adversarial encounters, but this same litigator will maintain the sceptical stance in partnership meetings, while mentoring younger lawyers, or in heading up a committee despite the fact that these situations may all be performed more effectively in a climate of trust, acceptance and collaboration.
Another trait that distinguishes lawyers from the general public is their higher Urgency scores. A high score on Urgency is characterized by impatience, a need to get things done, a sense of immediacy. Lawyers rated as ‘’Excellent’’ by peers and superiors in a study by Dr Richard scored roughly twenty per cent higher on this trait than the general public. Awareness about one’s own level of Urgency can immediately improve one’s effectiveness with others. Urgent people charge around like they are on their way to a fire. They may finish others’ sentences, jump to conclusions and be impulsive. There is an intensity to their behavioural style, since they are results-oriented. They seek efficiency and economy in everything from conversations to case management to relationships. While clients certainly reward many lawyers for moving their matters along, Urgency can have a negative side as well. Urgent people are sometimes brusque, poor listeners, which can add a level of tension to meetings, a level of frustration to mentor/mentee relationships, and a sense of oppression to lawyer/secretary interactions. The potential downside of this trait emerges most significantly in interpersonal relationships.
This may also explain why lawyers also differ from the general population so dramatically in the next trait—Sociability. The excellent lawyers in the same study had an average Sociability score of only 12.8%, compared to an average of 50% for the general public. Sociability is described as a desire to interact with people, especially a comfort level in initiating new, intimate connections with others. Low scorers are not necessarily anti-social. Rather, they simply find it uncomfortable to initiate intimate relationships and so are more likely to rely on relationships that already exist. Low Sociability scores have broad implications for many aspects of law firm management—mentoring, teamwork, practice group leadership, client retention, support staff turnover, and rainmaking.
According to Dr Daniel Goleman, “emotional self-awareness” is the single most important emotional competency for Leadership. That is, people who regularly and consistently spend time trying to understand themselves, seek feedback, and gain insight into their own inner emotional life, are more successful in their lives by any of the common ways that we measure success. Goleman’s research indicates that this generalisation applies with even greater force to those in leadership positions. In fact, emotional self-awareness is the single most important quality of effective leaders. For this reason, in every one of the top global leadership training programs, a significant amount of time is devoted to assessing people and providing them with feedback about their personality traits, leadership style, and other aspects of their individual functioning. For anyone in a leadership position in a law firm—managing partners, heads of practice groups, members of management or executive committees, heads of branch offices—it is vital that you learn about your own personality traits and that you understand how they compare to the averages for the general population, the averages for lawyers, and the averages for your own firm.
Dr Richard states that it is also helpful to profile all the lawyers in the firm, or at least all the owners. This not only gives valuable feedback to each individual, but it also provides everyone with aggregate data about the personality contours of the firm. Are there blind spots? Are there large clusters of individuals with extreme scores on a particular trait? Are there personality “factions”, i.e., one cluster of individuals with low scores on a particular trait and another cluster of individuals with a high score on that trait? The aggregate distribution of certain personality traits in a firm helps to shape the culture of the firm. This culture-shaping process is usually invisible and goes on outside of our conscious awareness, but through effective use of testing, the curtain can be pulled back. Armed with this information, the lawyers in a firm can develop a greater sense of their strengths, more consciously build a firm culture, evolve a clearer marketing strategy, hire more intelligently, and cultivate business development in a more sensible fashion.