I’ve been gathering data on lawyers’ personalities since the early 1980’s. Personality traits are typically measured on a percentile scale ranging from zero % to 100%. When large samples of the general public are tested, individuals’ scores on a given trait typically form a classic bell curve, with the mean average for any given trait hovering around the 50th percentile. But lawyers are different. As I have written about elsewhere, there are a number of traits on which lawyers tend to score much higher or much lower than the general public—in short, we’re outliers. The most extreme of all these outlier traits—the one on which lawyers consistently score higher (i.e., above the mean) than all the others—is Skepticism.

People with a very high Skepticism score tend to look at the world through a “glass half empty” lens—they focus on problems rather than on what’s working well; they tend toward the suspicious; they assume the worst, and rarely give others the “benefit of the doubt”. They wonder what another person’s “real” motive might be for any action that person takes. They question any assertion made by another person. And they tend to be slower to trust others.

On the surface, these may sound like negative thoughts and behaviors. However, considering the nature of what lawyers do for a living, these are quite functional and make a lot of sense. Many aspects of law practice require lawyers to scrutinize documents, transactions, actual or potential adversaries, deals, proposed actions, and the like, in order to protect their client. Lawyers are always asking, “What could possibly go wrong?” “What errors exist?” “Are there any potential sources of liability?” “Who might be at fault?” “Are there any exceptions to what has been asserted?” And, “Is there anything we should know about that hasn’t been disclosed?”

These questions, collectively, are often thought of as “critical thinking”. There is no doubt that they enable a lawyer to protect the client. But these days, lawyers wear many other hats that they didn’t used to wear—mentor, supervisor, manager, leader, rainmaker, committee chair, etc. And in all these newer roles, “critical thinking” – which in these other contexts can really be thought of as “negative thinking” – can actually get in the way. In fact, a steady diet of negative thinking can actually burn in neural pathways in the brain that deeply habituate a negative, pessimistic mindset, a filtering system that insures that the lawyer will see the half-empty glass and may even miss many of the half-full glasses.

Despite the need for more flexibility than ever before (specifically, there’s a need for lawyers to be able to “turn on” or “turn off” the Skeptical mindset), the fact remains that in today’s law practice climate, there are a number of reasons that high Skepticism is so common among lawyers and is likely to remain that way for some time to come.

First, because the personality trait of Skepticism provides an important advantage to any lawyer by making critical thinking more natural and easier, people with high levels of Skepticism are more likely to be attracted to the law in the first place. It feels more like a natural fit than many other jobs might. The more your personality aligns with the work you regularly do, the more likely you are to rate your job as satisfying. So the legal profession starts out with an overrepresentation of skeptics. (I’m using the word “overrepresentation” in the sense that statisticians use it—there are more high Skeptics in law than would be expected, based on their distribution in the general population.)

Second, for the same reason as above—i.e., the degree of “fit” between the person and the job—those lawyers with low Skepticism scores tend to drop out of law school and out of law practice (usually in their early years) at a higher rate than do those with high Skepticism scores. This “concentrates the herd” and results in a more overall skeptical cohort of lawyers who remain in practice.

Finally, Skepticism increases over time because lawyers work in a Skeptical environment. Every personality trait is partly dispositional (i.e., influenced by genes) and partly learned. Recent research suggests that genetics provide a larger contribution than previously suspected; however, Skepticism is an exception to that tendency—it is a trait that is significantly influenced by one’s environment. This means that the longer a lawyer works in a workplace in which the majority of his/her colleagues think and talk in Skeptical ways, the more Skeptical s/he will become over time.

These three forces are all moving in the same direction, fostering a culture of Skepticism in most law firms and a pattern of Skepticism in most lawyers. Over time, this becomes just the normal background “noise” and is taken for granted. Plus, it’s rare to find any counterbalancing force in most law firms that rewards “accepting” thinking or trusting behavior (the opposites of Skepticism). Skepticism is a one-way street, which is why it seems so normal to most lawyers, and why it’s so hard for others—friends, spouses, staff, even clients—to shake lawyers out of their Skeptical mindset, even though, as noted above, in the newer roles that lawyers play today, lowering Skepticism and increasing accepting and trusting behavior is a growing necessity.

If, after reading this post, you find yourself taking my ideas with a grain of salt, you can begin to see the problem . . .

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

© 2013 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved

  • I have been a litigator for the past 25 years.  And have also suffered from depression for some time.  I think that your observations of the profession are right on.  I think there’s a powerful connection between this trait and the adult-onset of depression for many lawyers.  Six years ago, I created the website http://www.lawyerswithdepression.com.  Having communicated with hundreds of lawyers across the country, many do talk about pessimism and cynicism.  Many of the people who went into the law, may not have developed depression had they not chosen the legal profession.  It may not be that the law “causes” depression, but it may tip the apple cart.  I also think your finding interesting that a higher rate of those with low Skepticism versus high Skepticism, drop out of the profession early.  While true, it seems to me that some with low Skepticism rates when they begin their journey in the law become hardened by years of practice that can leave many psychic scars – including depression.  Thanks for this wonderful piece!  Dan Lukasik

    • Charlie


      The cause of depression, absent a serious chemical imbalance, is involving other people on our goals. If my goal requires external approbation or “participation” then we will continually be frustrated. I’m a partner in a mid- sized law firm, and I can give you examples of how changing the goal completely changed the person, and the depression evaporated. if you are interested in this, please contact me.

      Charlie Davis

  • Thanks for your thoughtful post Dan.
    Dr. Larry Richard

  • Thank you for your insight.  Do you think that lawyers’ innate Skepticism is a cause of what appears to be their wholesale denial of the need to embrace the changes evident to outside observers of the shift in the legal service marketplace?  Seemingly, every legal industry publication has run countless articles about the necessity to generate one’s own business and clients, and there have been many articles quoting lawyers who characterize business development skills as “mission-critical,” “survival-critical,” etc. Yet, they also complain that their firms don’t provide training in such skills. None seem to entertain the thought of purchasing such training themselves. So, is it critical or not?  If it is, and you make well into six figures annually, as is certainly the case in BigLaw, why wouldn’t you solve the problem instead of waiting around for the firm to solve it?  What’s your theory of this apparent disconnect?

    • Mike,

      Since I don’t have data on that particular issue, I can only speculate. Some possibilities include:
      – Yes, Skepticism likely plays a role. One possible way might be that even if a lawyer recognizes the need for enhanced business development activity as well as the need to upgrade his/her skills to be able to do that activity, they may be reluctant to trust any provider because of their skepticism. To a skeptic, it may take multiple exposures to the vendor, hearing testimonials by credible others, recognition by trade publications, etc., before they conclude that the individual is worth hiring.
      – Another possibility: there are two mindsets that have been identified by psychologist Carol Dweck–she calls them the “growth” mindset and the “fixed” mindset. Most of us unconsciously adopt one or the other and consistently see the world through the lens of that mindset. Those with a growth mindset believe that people can readily change and grow, and thus mistakes are opportunities for learning, and enrolling in a training program is similarly seen as a learning opportunity. But for those with a fixed mindset, the belief is that the older you get, the less change is possible. They believe that IQ is fixed, personality is fixed, etc. Thus, mistakes must be avoided at all costs, and the idea of taking a training can be seen as an admission of weakness — “It must mean that I’m not good at something”. 

      There are probably other explanations as well, but these two both have considerable plausibility.

      Dr. Larry Richard

      • Thanks for your thoughts. Given your investment of many years with this topic, I’m confident that your speculation is more useful than others’ claims of fact.

        I’m familiar with Carol Dweck’s mindset duality concept. I’ve been coaching lawyers (marketing/sales) for 20 years, so I’ve observed thousands of them up close and personal. Relative to your work, I realize that constitutes having stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night, but my experience suggests an overwhelming concentration in the “fixed” mindset realm.

        Do you have an opinion of where the distribution of lawyers likely falls on either side of that line? 

        • Mike, in my experience, most lawyers I’ve worked with have a “fixed” as opposed to a “growth” mindset. I don’t have any scientific data that would let me know if my own intuitions are supported by objective data–I wish I did. I can say that my experience has been consistent over a number of years. I’ve also noticed that those with a strong fixed mindset also seem to have lower Resilience. It’s possible that the two are correlated.

  • Floyd

    Very insightful thank you. It may explain to some extent why I am struggling to win a lawyer’s heart

  • M

    It’s so hard to peruse and have a relationship with a lawyer, I recently wS dating a lawyer and she led me on until I was smitten, then she spat me out because she got what she wanted. I feel like the majority of lawyers have issues with themselves and can be very pompus and cold! Anyone had the same issue or have any advice on this ?!

  • Margaret Campbell

    I love it, I am attracted to law and I do have this kind of personality, and I do often have a negative mindset

  • tish

    i am a law student dating a seasoned lawyer. Now I understand why we are not together. He thinks Im too good to be true.