September 2012

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

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

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. 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