“If you say ‘non-lawyer’ one more time, I’ll have to wash your mouth out with soap . . .”

Really, this is a widespread and embarrassing problem that lawyers can’t seem to overcome. Today I saw a post on LinkedIn by Nir Golan of Elevate. You can read his post here. Here is the reply I posted on LinkedIn:

Nir, thanks for raising this issue. It’s pervasive. I see that Larry Bridgesmith already referred to my research on the lawyer personality. I’d like to add two specific points that may help to explain their behavior and offer solutions: First, in nearly 30 years of researching the lawyer personality, the most consistent two findings are that lawyers are unusually high in Skepticism and unusually low in psychological resilience. Their high Skepticism may play out in two ways: First, the obvious: they may be slower to accept professionals with training other than a law degree simply because that’s what skeptics do. But there’s a second, more subtle possibility: lawyers not only are more skeptical to begin with — they actually reinforce this personality tendency every day due to the nature of practicing law. That is, good lawyers are always “issue spotting”, i.e., looking for problems, asking what could go wrong, questioning people’s motives, etc.

This creates a negative mindset and generates plenty of negative emotions. Research shows that when we’re in a negative state of mind, we’re more prone to homophily — that is, we are more threat-sensitive, and as a result we tend to “circle the wagons”–we trust people who are “like us” and become suspicious of others we see as different. In short, negative emotions really impede diversity. And lawyer negativity generates lots of negative emotions. The other trait I mentioned, low psychological Resilience, further amplifies both patterns just described. People who are low in Resilience are thin-skinned and thus more sensitive to criticism. Any effort to give feedback, e.g., “You really should consider collaborating with professionals other than lawyers…” may be met with a defensive response, thus perpetuating the problem.

Luckily, all 3 of the psychological barriers I mentioned can be overcome. People can be trained to dial back Skepticism (although not easily — this is the most challenging of the three); we can teach lawyers how to diminish the impact of their  negative emotions by teaching them how to generate positive emotions, thus reducing homophily. And we can teach them simple cognitive strategies that can significantly raise their resilience (the easiest of all three interventions.) So there’s definitely hope!

I also commend my readers to look at my colleague Heidi K. Gardner’s brilliant book Smart Collaboration for more evidence-based and actionable information related to this issue.

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Dr. Larry Richard is the founder and principal consultant at LawyerBrain LLC. You can reach him at drlarryrichard@lawyerbrain.com or at www.lawyerbrain.com.

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

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