What Makes Lawyers Tick?

Resilience and Lawyer Negativity

Posted in Change Management, Resilience

Friends and clients who have followed my work over the years have heard me speak often about the personality research I have done with lawyers. Perhaps no other finding is as intriguing as the fact that lawyers consistently score low on a trait called Resilience. What is Resilience? Basically, it’s the degree to which a person bounces back quickly from criticism, rejection or setbacks. High Resilience people tend to take these negative events in stride. They aren’t as easily thrown off course by them as Low Resilience people are, and when they are impacted, they recover more quickly.

On a percentile scale which ranges from zero to 100%, the average for this trait among the public is the 50th percentile; among lawyers, the average is the 30th percentile. Even more telling is the distribution–90% of the lawyers we test score below the 50th percentile! This is as astonishing as it is consistent.

People often ask me Why are lawyers so low in Resilience? For years, I had no good answer to give them. Over the past few years, I’ve been immersed in a new field of psychology called Positive Psychology, which focuses on the scientific study of what makes it possible for people to thrive–in other words, instead of focusing on “fixing” people who are “broken”, Positive Psychology focuses on what’s working well, and how can we have even more of it. One of the things to emerge out of the Positive Psychology research is a set of techniques that can actually teach people how to become more resilient. As I looked into these very effective techniques, the lightbulb went on.

How do you build Resilience in someone who is low to begin with? (My own Resilience score is 19%.) The answer is you teach the person to change their “self-talk” from negative to positive. That’s an oversimplification–there are a lot of specific strategies involved in successfully doing this, which I’ll cover in a later post–but the basic point is that a positive mindset can fortify against a low-Resilience response. My lightbulb is that the converse is also true–a negative mindset can cause low Resilience in the first place.

By both our nature and our training, lawyers focus on what can go wrong, on what’s broken, on what possible problems exist. In talking to hundreds of people over the years who work with lawyers, the five most common adjectives that they use to describe lawyers are:

  • cynical
  • skeptical
  • critical
  • pessimistic
  • negative

For most lawyers, negative thinking is quite necessary in order to do a good job in representing a client. That’s the problem–the people who are attracted into the legal profession think more negatively than the general public to begin with. Studies show that those with lower levels of negativity drop out of both law school and out of the profession, thus concentrating the more highly negative thinkers. That negativity gets further reinforced when you work every day in a negative climate where negative thinking is rewarded.

All this negativity takes a toll. It’s no accident that as a group, lawyers have above-average levels of divorce, depression, suicide, and substance abuse . . . and low Resilience.

Today there is increasing pressure on lawyers to improve their low Resilience. Lawyers today are called upon to play many other roles besides merely practicing law–They are asked to be leaders, managers, supervisors, mentors, coaches, committee chairs, rainmakers–all of these roles require greater levels of social skill for their success than the practice of law does. And all of them–particularly the leadership role–require higher levels of Resilience for optimum effectiveness.

The good news: As noted above, there are established techniques that actually work quite well to build psychological Resilience even if you’re starting with a very low level. I know–I’ve done it myself, and I’ve taught clients to do it. The U.S. Army is currently engaged in a two-year program to train all 40,000 drill sergeants in how to teach other soldiers to increase their Resilience. The goal: a psychologically fit fighting force.

If Resilience skills  can be taught to soldiers who are in harm’s way, then they can be taught to lawyers. Stay tuned to this space for more details about some of the techniques and other related resources.

As usual, if you have comments or questions, please post a reply.

© 2012 LawyerBrain LLC  -  All rights reserved

  • Khagan

    I agree with the individual pyschological assessment of the typical attorney that is presented by the research.  I’m interested in whether you or others have followed that phenomena through to the organizational level.  That is, what organizational manifestations of this individual psychology are typical in firms?

    • http://www.lawyerbrain.com/ Dr. Larry Richard

      Khagan, I’m not aware of any formal studies that have been done to look at the organizational manifestations of lawyer personality traits, but as a consultant to and observer of law firms for my entire career, I can tell you that the individual traits do contribute to culture and organizational dynamics. For example, in law firms, teams are harder to build and maintain; the decision cycle is longer; aversion to risk is higher; management is favored over leadership; and there is a sizable amount of skepticism with respect to HR practices that are widely accepted in the corporate world, like the use of selection testing, high-potential leader development programs, widespread use of 360′s, etc.

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