What Makes Lawyers Tick?

The Psychologically Savvy Leader

Posted in Change Management, Leadership, Organizational Behavior, People Skills, Resilience, Self-Management

In talking to law firm leaders these days, what I am hearing most frequently are their concerns about disruptive change and its impact on their ability to maintain a profitable and competitive firm.

One consequence of this increased focus on change is that rank-and-file partners are being asked to do more with less—to take on additional roles, step up their performance, be better at the things they never had to be good at before.

This has two psychological consequences: (1) It increases the level of stress that partners are under, and (2) it makes it imperative that they develop better “people” skills. (Most of these newer roles depend on interpersonal skill for their success.) Luckily, doing the second thing well can mitigate the first thing.

Lawyers have never been big fans of people skills. Culturally, the legal profession has historically relegated people skills to an unwelcome corner of the room. Even today, many lawyers belittle, dismiss, devalue and mock any mention of such skills.

This is ironic, because these skills are more essential to your firm’s survival today, and because more than ever before, there is solid scientific evidence emerging that shows how powerful and central these skills are to the superior performance of business organizations.

These days, there are at least four specific types of “people” skills at which the average partner, and most certainly any law firm leader, should become more skilled:

  • Teaming Skills: In today’s hyper-competitive and increasingly complex climate, successful law firms are placing more emphasis on lawyers working together in teams. These include client teams, industry teams, marketing teams, leadership teams, practice sub-specialty teams, and more.When people work together on a joint project, it evokes known psychological forces that don’t normally emerge when an individual is working alone. Examples include peer pressure, the need to be included, factionalization, groupthink, and relaxation of responsibility. Both team leaders and members need to understand group dynamics—both to avoid the dysfunctionality that lack of awareness of these principles can bring, and on the positive side, to boost performance to potentially extraordinary levels.
  • Leadership & Change Management Skills: Every partner today has to not only practice law, but also has to manage relationships, influence subordinates, peers and leaders within the firm, and influence clients and others outside the firm. And those in formal leadership roles have an even greater need to understand these skills. There is a huge and growing body of scientific knowledge about how to successfully lead and influence others, especially in the face of rapid change. Lawyers need to understand these principles. Let me illustrate with one salient example: as lawyers, we’re trained to use the adversarial model in our roles as lawyers. That is, our method of influencing others is to stake out a position and then advance didactic points which we hope are more cogent and compelling than those of the “adversary”.The problem with this approach is that it is designed to be used inside a system with a set of rules, a “game” of sorts—and it requires a neutral adjudicator who is trained in the same rules for one of us to be successful. This is exactly the structure of litigation, but this model doesn’t work at all when you’re trying to get a peer on board with your idea for how to pitch a client or to debate the merits of bringing on a lateral. You may have noticed that whenever lawyer “A” advances an argument, it rarely has the effect of convincing lawyer “B”. Rather, it impels lawyer “B” to harden his own position and to point out the flaws in partner “A”’s position. When the task is to influence your peers inside the firm, a more subtle, psychologically savvy set of skills needs to be deployed.
  • Emotional Intelligence Skills:  In 1988, the construct of “Emotional Intelligence” was proposed by two psychologists, Jack Mayer and Peter Salovey. Twenty-five years later, hundreds of scientific studies have shown that EI is a distinct set of skills, that it is learnable, and that these skills are powerful predictors of most of the desired business outcomes that we all want. Being an intellectually smart lawyer is the mere table stakes to get into the game of Big Law. To succeed on a sustained basis, today’s lawyer needs to develop EI skills. Savvy law firm leaders recognize this, yet few law firms have made a commitment to teach these skills to their lawyers. EI skills are harder to teach and learn than legal principles. Think of EI skills as more about “procedure” than “substance”. In other words, you can’t just sit in a lecture or read a book about Emotional Intelligence and then expect to be able to behave in a more emotionally intelligent way. Rather, these are behavioral skills, and they can only be learned by employing an “adult learning” methodology that includes at least the following steps:
    • See the skill demonstrated
    • Try it yourself
    • Receive high quality operational feedback
    • Make course corrections and try it again
    • Repeat as needed
    • Tie it to a practical, meaningful goal
    • Build layers of skill complexity, one layer at a time
    • Practice and rehearse on a regular basis until the skill becomes second nature

This last bullet is the most important and the most daunting for many lawyers. It’s the most important because in order to acquire a skill and develop it to a high level, a person has to burn new neural pathways in the brain. This takes time and repetition, and it means that there will be a period of discomfort and poor performance before there is mastery. Many lawyers become quite uncomfortable doing any behavior at which they don’t immediately feel competent. (See Tom DeLong’s new book Flying Without A Net – apparently this pattern is common not only to lawyers but to many other “high need for achievement” professionals.)

Here are the four emotional intelligence skills:

  1. Accurately Identifying and Labeling Emotions: The ability to notice and accurately label emotions, in both yourself and another person, is critical to any role involving interactions with others—this includes leadership, business development, coaching, mentoring, supervising, managing, working on a team, persuading, influencing, and attending a partners meeting.
  2. Using Mood as a Strategic Tool: Mood refers to emotions extended over time. Our emotions influence our thoughts, and our thoughts influence our emotions. By getting into a particular mood, you can actually enhance your efficacy at performing certain cognitive tasks, like generating creative ideas, paying attention to details, problem-solving, and analyzing data. There is an optimum mood for each of these tasks. If you understand mood, and if you know how to readily get into the appropriate mood, you can perform the related task better. Lawyers who know how to adopt the right mood will have a cognitive edge over those who don’t.
  3. Accurately Understanding and Predicting Emotions: There are countless situations in any workplace in which an individual, e.g., a leader, wishes to influence another person. You will be much more successful in doing so if you have a proper understanding of human nature, particularly if you understand the natural emotional response that is likely for a given scenario. How might a partner react if you de-equitize her? How can you give someone critical feedback without de-motivating them? How can you successfully encourage a reluctant partner to develop more business? The more you can accurately understand and predict emotional reactions, the more successfully you can navigate these scenarios.
  4. Regulating EmotionsYour Own and Others’:  Recent neuropsychological research shows that we had it all wrong—emotions are not the opposite of thoughts—they’re indispensably intertwined, both in our brain structure and our behavior. Many lawyers grew up with the message that emotions are bad, it’s better not to show them, and being logical, detached and objective is the best way to conduct yourself. Thinking is seen as a sign of strength; emotional displays are seen as a sign of weakness. It turns out that none of this is accurate. It’s time to hit the re-set button on this one. Science has also shown us that whenever an emotion is expressed, it is preceded by a thought. Thoughts lead to emotions. If you change your thoughts, you will change your emotional responses. We have all been in situations where we expressed a particular emotion and in hindsight realized that it would have been better not to have done so. And we’ve all been in situations where we refrained from expressing an emotion that we felt, and in hindsight wished we had expressed it. Emotional Regulation is the skill that allows us to do both of these things. In other words, a person with good emotional regulation skills has learned how to consciously make a choice in that small space between the time that they feel and emotion and the time that they express it behaviorally. We all have the capacity to choose or regulate our emotional responses, and doing so can keep us out of trouble and also help us sustain important relationships. The fly in the ointment is that not everyone has developed this capacity. It’s a skill, and it  can be taught and learned.  In a law firm, leaders without this skill can easily alienate their constituents. This skill also affects the practice of law—in firms where I have worked with their highest performing partners, they routinely are better skilled at emotional regulation than their average counterparts.In short, today lawyers need all four emotional intelligence skills in order to maximize their potential for success.
  • Resilience-Building Skills: The final skillset is perhaps the most important. I have written elsewhere about the importance of Resilience, and about the widespread lack of it among lawyers, according to our personality research data. Low Resilience makes lawyers thin-skinned and defensive, and more vulnerable to prolonged negative emotional responses to setbacks. But it has another, more pernicious, impact: in a time of great change such as we currently face, the low Resilience lawyer is at greater risk of suffering stress and the other negative consequences of rapid change, particularly change that we don’t feel we can control. Lawyers today need to learn how to build their Resilience skills. Doing so has a double benefit—first, it reduces their poor response to change, stress, and adversity, and further it helps toughen them so that they don’t  have as many setbacks in the first place. It also helps them recover faster when they do have a setback. But the second benefit is the more important one—the very same Resilience-building techniques that protect you from adversity also build positive resources. Lawyers who have learned how to boost their psychological Resilience are more likely to be collaborative, grateful, friendly, less critical, more open-minded, more social and more optimistic. And these characteristics, in turn, are all predictors of greater success in the workplace, and greater life satisfaction. Thus, building Resilience skills is the most leveraged of the four psychological skills under discussion here. (Don’t these sound very similar to the kinds of behaviors we want all of our partners to exhibit today?)

To summarize, in today’s rapidly changing world, lawyers who want to gain a competitive advantage and increase their potential for success will do well to learn the skills of . . .

  • Teaming
  • Leadership & Change Management
  • Emotional Intelligence; and,
  • Resilience

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

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  • Sara

    Have you written anything to help people in relationship with lawyers? Or do you know anyone who has? I’ve been married for 33 years to a very successful managing partner of a large law firm. He is a very good man, but emotional intimacy is extremely difficult, and when I read what you say about resilience I see some of the traits I have been struggling with all these years.

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

      Sara, I’m not aware of anyone who has written about personal relationships with lawyers. You are certainly not alone. There are over a million lawyers in the country, and it seems like a natural topic for someone to focus on. If I do hear of anything along those lines, I’ll post it here.

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

    Yes, I agree. Thanks Joel.