What Makes Lawyers Tick?®

Why Skeptics Make Good Lawyers and Lousy Leaders

Posted in Leadership

I recently finished conducting a 6-month-long “Action Learning” leadership program with a mid-size law firm. The idea is to train lawyers to be leaders by actually placing them into real live leadership situations, and teaching through experience, instead of using a “death by Power Point” approach.

At the end of our capstone meeting, one of the participants asked me about skepticism and leadership. If you’ve followed my writing, you’ve heard me describe the personality data that I’ve gathered on thousands of lawyers. One of the most robust findings over the years is that lawyers are much more skeptical than the general public. This is the result of several factors that all move in the same direction:

Being a lawyer requires one to constantly search for problems, to wonder what could go wrong, to find the flaws and defects in an assertion. As a result, people with a personality that leans in this direction are more prone to entering the profession, and people with less of this tendency drop out of law school and out of practice at a disproportionately higher rate than their more skeptical counterparts. This concentrates the skeptics in two ways–more are attracted in the first place, and fewer drop out over time.

Skepticism itself is one of those personality traits that is more influenced by one’s environment than is typical. Most personality traits are more genetically predisposed, more nature than nurture, but skepticism is an exception. It is very much influenced by one’s milieu. And the milieu in most law firms, the mindset that is the norm, is one of skepticism. Over the years, I’ve asked people who work with lawyers, are married to lawyers, or who know lawyers, “What adjectives would you use to describe the lawyers you know?” I’ve gotten many responses, but the five most frequent are these: cynical, skeptical, critical, negative and pessimistic. (I also hear arrogant, analytical, egotistical, smart, and several others quite often.)

The point is that the profession both attracts and reinforces people with a negative mindset because this type of critical thinking is essential for a lawyer who wants to do a good job at representing clients.

In recent years, however, lawyers have increasingly been called upon to play many other roles besides “lawyer”. These include leader, manager, supervisor, mentor, committee chair, rainmaker and teammate. These newer roles all require less skepticism and more trust, the opposite of skepticism.

This brings us back to the question that this new law firm leader asked me–Can a skeptical lawyer be a good leader?

The essence of leadership is setting a clear goal and then mobilizing and inspiring others to voluntarily take action to achieve that goal. According to research by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner (The Leadership Challenge; Credibility), trust and credibility are the sine qua non of effective leadership. Leading others is an intensely personal process. People follow a leader because they trust their leader to do the right thing. When a leader is skeptical–and I mean skeptical in his/her leadership role–it leads to a big problem.

Think about really skeptical people that you know. How do you react to them? Do you instantly trust them? Or do you find yourself being skeptical right back at them? Most people instinctively find themselves pulling back and becoming skeptical in response to a skeptic. When a leader is skeptical of us, we become less trusting and more skeptical of that leader. And this is precisely the opposite reaction from what any leader should want. In short, the most effective leaders are trusting, approachable, accepting.

When a lawyer takes on a leadership role, the challenge is one of adaptability–how can you maintain your useful skeptical outlook while wearing your lawyer hat, and yet relax your vigilance and assume a more trusting persona while wearing your leadership hat? I can tell you from experience that it is possible for lawyers in leadership roles to learn this kind of adaptability, what I call “personality agility”, but it’s not easy, and not everyone can do it successfully. It requires first and foremost the desire to become more effective as a leader, plus a willingness to both be self-aware and to receive and reflect on feedback. Next, it’s important to see one or more actual examples of people who have successfully figured out how to achieve this kind of role adaptability, so that the learner can role model what s/he is seeing. Finally, it requires lots of actual and mental rehearsal of the new behaviors, and sufficient reinforcements to cement them in place.

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

© 2012 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved

Stress and the Lawyer Brain

Posted in Resilience

I’ve posted before about lawyer negativity and low Resilience. Today I want to address a related topic–How stress affects people in general and lawyers in particular. When we experience a stressful situation, we each react differently. Some people cope really well with stress, take it in stride, aren’t knocked over by it, and recover quickly when they are affected by it. Others are more vulnerable to the effects of stress–we cave in more readily, suffer more, and have a harder time getting back to equilibrium. Earlier this year, a prominent neuropsychologist, Richard Davidson, published a book called The Emotional Life of Your Brain, in which he presents findings from his 30 years of research. He makes the case that every person has a certain “Emotional Style” that is the collective result of how that individual is wired in each of 6 types of brain circuitry. Each circuit is like a dimmer switch, with a high and a low end, and on each circuit, we have a “set point” or a comfort zone. Each of these circuits can be reliably measured in a scientific way.

One of those circuits Davidson specifically calls “Resilience”, which refers to how quickly one recovers from an assault to the system such as being stressed out by an external event. Some people naturally recover quickly from such stresses; others are naturally slow to recover. We all start out in life with a set point, a comfort zone, a home base. The most important point he makes is that recent research suggests that we can change our set point by how we think and by how we pay attention. Davidson has done extensive research, for example, on the impact that mindfulness meditation has on brain circuitry, and he has shown that continued practice produces profound changes in these circuits, and as a result, changes in how practitioners respond to stress.

One of the other circuits that Davidson discusses is called “Outlook”, and it has to do with how positively or negatively one views the world–and how long they can sustain a positive affect. At one end is the person with a sunny disposition, a positive view of life, a “glass half full” mindset. They not only feel positive, but they’re able to sustain that positive feeling for longer periods of time. At the opposite pole is the pessimistic, negative, cynical person. Davidson has shown that there are brain circuits that remain electrically active longer in the positive person, but turn off more quickly in the negative person.

We don’t have data about how lawyers score on Davidson’s 6 brain dimensions. Measuring these circuits requires sophisticated and expensive laboratory equipment. But we do have lots of personality data that convincingly show that lawyers are very low on resilience. We also have evidence from research conducted at the University of Pennsylvania that a negative outlook can actually foster lower resilience. And–good news–the converse is also true, i.e., when people are trained to think more positively, their resilience can be fortified.

All of this research is incipient. Much more needs to be done. But there is more evidence than ever before that the following propositions seem true:

a) People vary in the degree to which they have a positive or negative outlook.

b) People vary in the degree to which they bounce back from setbacks (i.e., resilience).

c) A negative outlook may, in fact, foster lower resilience.

d) By training people to modify their cognitions, they can be taught to change to a more positive outlook set point, and they can be taught to increase their resilience set point.

e) These kinds of changes can have enormous beneficial consequences in their personal and work lives.

For more on this topic, see this blog post by Daniel Goleman, the psychologist who gained fame from writing the bestselling book on Emotional Intelligence:

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

© 2012 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved

Using Measures of “Critical Thinking” to Select Lawyers: Not such a good idea

Posted in Selection

I belong to a listserv on Positive Psychology, the new discipline that studies the principles that help ordinary people to thrive (instead of focusing on how to “fix” people who have problems.) Someone on the listserv posed the following question to me (I’m paraphrasing here): Can the Watson Glaser (a test that measures “critical thinking”) be useful in screening lawyers during selection. Here is my response to him:

The Watson Glaser is a very useful tool, but it won’t be that helpful in recruiting lawyers because of a statistical barrier, i.e., restriction of range. By the time someone becomes a lawyer, they have already been screened several times for IQ, analytical and reasoning ability, etc. So the pool of job candidates almost all have capabilities on the higher end of this constellation of abilities. The Watson Glaser, or any test of its type for that matter, is most effective when measuring individuals drawn from a population with lots of variability, i.e., dispersion of scores across the whole bell curve. Such a test will do a very good job discriminating between someone who could not handle the analytical load imposed by legal training and someone who can. But it will do a much less effective job in making fine distinctions between two lawyers.

Moreover, in my experience, the kinds of critical thinking skills measured by the Watson Glaser are entry-level skills, i.e., the “ante to get into the game”. The kinds of skills that differentiate top performing lawyers from average performing lawyers are the same kinds of differentiators that you find in most other industries–emotional intelligence skills, the ability to synthesize ideas, adaptability, open-mindedness, sociability, and cognitive empathy.

My research shows that lawyers as a group don’t naturally come by many of these traits. Lawyers are skeptical and exhibit a disproportionately high degree of negative thinking, which is fine in their lawyer role but an impediment in the other roles that they are called upon to play these days (mentor, supervisor, manager, leader, rainmaker, etc.) They are very low in Sociability, low in Interpersonal Sensitivity, low in Resilience, high in Urgency, and very autonomous. These traits help them be effective as lawyers. But once again, many of these traits interfere with their effectiveness in the other newer roles that they need to play. In the law firm of the future, law firms will need to look for individuals who have the ability to “think like lawyers” when appropriate, and to then adapt and “think like managers” (or like any of the other roles I’ve mentioned.) The most important two traits in developing this capacity, in my opinion, are adaptability and empathy. Both of these are capable of being assessed by some of the better personality instruments available today such as the Caliper Profile, the Hogan, etc.

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

© 2012 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved

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

Mindset Makes A Difference

Posted in Positive Psychology

Carol Dweck is a psychologist at Stanford University who studies achievement and success. Within her field, she is quite well known for the concept of “mindset” (also the title of one of her best-selling books). Her idea is simple–people seem to come in two flavors–those with a “fixed” mindset, and those with a “growth” mindset. Those with a fixed mindset assume that they are the way they are and that’s all there is to it. “There’s no changing me–I yam what I yam . . . ” (as Popeye frequently said.) Those with a growth mindset assume that they can change, that their personality and qualities are malleable and that they can change and grow. The consequence of this difference in assumptions is huge–fixed mindset people, based on Dweck’s scientific research, seem to be risk-averse. Since they believe that nothing they do can make themselves smarter or more successful, they want to conserve what they have and present the best possible image to the public. By contrast, those with a growth mindset believe that they can learn from their mistakes, so they are much more willing to try new behaviors, and when they stumble, they’re more likely to interpret it as a step along the way to becoming even more successful. There’s an old expression: “Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they’re yours.”

Which mindset do you think characterizes most lawyers? We don’t have hard data on this one, but I’m willing to bet that more lawyers have a fixed mindset. Why does it matter? In today’s fast-paced, rapidly changing environment, a growth mindset will enable you to cope with change better. Growth mindset people can adapt better, hence they may make more effective leaders. A growth mindset will lead to less defensiveness and greater openness to trying out new behaviors. Here’s a more concrete example: If you’re a partner, and you’re giving feedback to an associate on his/her work product, if you’re coming from a fixed mindset, you may tend to rigidly classify the associate as either a “star” or something other than a star. If your come-from is a growth mindset, you may be more open-minded to the associate’s capacity to learn, grow and develop. Many associates have been written off by a partner who prematurely categorized them, only to flourish at another firm where they had a better chance to develop. These things all contribute to success in a changing world.

The good news in all of this is that your mindset is something you can change just by reflecting on the assumptions you habitually make and deciding if they’re working for you. But remember, if you have a fixed mindset, you will be tempted to conclude that you can’t change your attitude. Resist this thought, and give yourself the leeway to reflect more deeply on this question.

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

© 2012 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved

Welcome to the ‘What Makes Lawyers Tick?’ Blog

Posted in Uncategorized

Welcome. This is the first post in the What Makes Lawyers Tick? blog, and I want to give readers a cook’s tour of what we’ll cover.

As a lawyer-psychologist, I’ve spent my career guiding the leaders of law firms in how to manage the “people” side of their business. Along the way, I became fascinated with the question of what kinds of people are drawn to the legal profession.

I believe that an accurate understanding of lawyers’ unique personality traits makes it possible to design better leadership programs, manage change more effectively, select and retain better people who fit the firm’s culture, and improve communication.

In this blog, I will share with readers some of the findings from my research on lawyers’ personalities, and will also discuss other findings from the fields of psychology and related social sciences that will help law firm leaders to more effectively address people issues in their firms.

I’m interested in what science tells us about these topics and not in anecdote or supposition, so I’ll focus on authoritative research from a variety of fields that can guide us in this regard. I’m especially interested in the burgeoning field of “Positive Psychology”, the scientific exploration of what conditions and qualities allow people to thrive and perform at their best, and to achieve life satisfaction and well-being.

We’ll look at topics like the following:

  • What kinds of tools exist for assessing and predicting behavior;
  • How can we measure “soft” stuff like “culture”–and why is it really “hard”, i.e. tied to the “bottom-line”;
  • What is “leadership” and why is it more important than ever for lawyers to become skilled in it;
  • What are “360 degree” surveys, what are their pro’s and con’s, and how can they be best utilized in a law firm;
  • What can be done to get lawyers to work successfully in teams;
  • Can dysfunctional behavior be repaired or even prevented;
  • How can we build the level of Resilience among lawyers, and how can this help in loss prevention and risk management;
  • What is “Positive Psychology” and how can its principles help law firms to succeed;
  • What is “Emotional Intelligence”, and can it be taught to lawyers; if so, what are the possible payoffs for doing so;
  • How can leaders get buy-in from skeptical lawyers;
  • What makes for a good mentoring program;
  • What steps can a firm take to retain its best people;

I also plan to report to you relevant findings from the social sciences which can help increase understanding about why people behave the way they do, how to improve performance, how to motivate, how to influence, how to build consensus, etc., all in an effort to help law firm leaders to better adapt to the massive levels of change we are all facing.

Let the blogging begin.

© 2012 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved

Why Leaders Need Empathy and Flexibility

Posted in Leadership

When I design a leadership course for a law firm, I usually include an assessment component. Effective leaders need to be self-aware–they need to understand their strengths and weaknesses, their possible blind spots, and the style of leadership to which they gravitate. To gain this kind of insight requires feedback. The two most common types of feedback that we use are 360-degree surveys coupled with a high quality personality test that measures traits that are germane to leadership.

Over the years, I’ve observed that two personality traits in particular seem to differentiate effective lawyer-leaders–Cognitive Empathy, and Flexibility. The more empathic and flexible a lawyer is–when s/he is in a leadership role–the more effective s/he will be as a leader.

Does this mean you’re out of luck if you’re low on these traits? Not necessarily. Think of personality as a “comfort zone”. A low score simply tells you that you aren’t as comfortable using this trait. If it’s nevertheless an important behavior, you can still do it–you’ll just have to work harder at it than will an individual with a high score on the trait.

Recently I was working with a ten-person leadership team from a mid-size law firm and was surprised to find that literally the entire team, without exception, had low scores on both of these traits. Statistically speaking, this is fairly unusual. So should we “throw them back in the pond” and get a new batch of leaders?

Not at all. Each of these individuals has many other leadership qualities, and were selected for this program because of their leadership potential. The best use of personality feedback is not as an exclusionary tool, but rather as a feedback tool–“Here’s what you need to work on if you want to be more effective.”

Personality traits have a strong genetic component, and tend to be very stable over time, so they are hard to “change”. But every trait can be “managed”. For example, I’m high on a trait called “Urgency”–I’m much more impatient than most other people. I’ve always been that way, and I will most likely remain that way for the rest of my life–I can’t change the trait. But over the years, I  have learned how to manage my “ready-fire-aim” tendency, first by becoming aware of it, and then by learning a set of mental strategies that allow me to be more mindful in how and when I express this trait.

When I asked the lawyers in this program what personal leadership skill they wanted to work on, many of them chose to work on ways of better managing their empathy or flexibility.

Why are these traits important to leaders?

Cognitive empathy has to do with taking the perspective of another person. Leaders often need to influence the other lawyers in their firm or their practice to change how they’re behaving in some way. There are usually a multitude of ways to get others to change. An effective leader needs to think through in advance which strategy will work best with which individuals. The ability to accurately predict how another person will react emotionally and behaviorally in a given set of circumstances is what “cognitive empathy” is all about. The better you are at this trait, the more accurate and successful you will be in figuring out the approach that will work when you want to influence someone else.

(Cognitive empathy is quite different from “emotional empathy”. Emotional empathy involves feeling what the other person is feeling–remember “I feel your pain”?)

Flexibility, on the other hand, is a trait which is characterized by an open attitude–open to new ideas, new ways of doing things, openness to the possibility that how I’m doing something might not be the best way. The opposite of Flexibility is Stubbornness or Rigidity.

Leaders need to try stuff that no one has done before. We never have perfect information, so leaders are often experimenting, and some experiments fail. If you are low in Flexibility, then you’re likely to just keep trying the failed behavior over and over–“It should work–let’s try again.” The flexible leader will try something different instead of digging their heels in and getting stuck.

Hopefully you can develop your own skills in these two important areas. Remember, as you’re working on this, I feel your pain.

If you have comments or reactions, we’d like to hear from you.

© 2012 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved


Getting the structure right is only half the battle

Posted in Leadership

Recently I was working with a group of leaders in a mid-size law firm who were wrestling with the issue of how to make the “income partner” role more attractive so as to stem departures. Much of the conversation focused on how to “structure” the role of income partner in the right way–Should this category include partners on the way down? Associates on the way up? Senior partners who are cutting back? etc.

Focusing on structure is not necessarily the wrong thing to do, but recent research suggests that if this is all you do, you may be missing a more powerful step.

A recent article (“Why is Performance Management Broken?) makes the compelling case that getting the structure right–choosing the right tools, implementing them properly, etc.–is not very effective unless you also pay attention to what they call the “manager-employee relationship”. For example, it’s important to use the right competency model to let employees know what performance standards are expected of them (the “structure”); but it turns out that the competency model alone doesn’t really result in improved performance unless the individuals managing these employees have a good relationship and communicate effectively about their expectations.

The lesson learned is that if a law firm wants to implement a new system for organizing or managing its people, attention must be paid to two very different aspects: (1) get the right system or tool or process in place, one that has been shown to work effectively; and (2) be sure to pay attention to the human element:

  • Carefully select the people who will be managing or implementing the new system or practices.
  • Train them about how to communicate about the new system or practices.
  • Monitor them and provide them feedback about how they are communicating with your lawyers about the desired behaviors.
  • Pay attention to tonality–Is the communication style abrasive? Loaded with innuendo? Disingenuous or incongruent? Communication needs to be clean, direct, mature, and kind or you’ll generate resistance or worse.
  • Did you get true buy-in? That is, does everyone support the new idea or the change in behavior not just verbally, but by actually doing what you ask of them?

Note that these two elements are multiplicative–If you get the procedure right, but get the people stuff wrong, you won’t successfully change peoples’ behaviors; and if you get the people stuff right but have a poorly designed system or set of procedures, you’ll get inefficiency at best and failure at worst. You need to get both right–procedure, and people.

If you have comments or reactions, we’d like to hear from you.

© 2012 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved