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News flash: Lawyers Under Stress are Critical, Cautious & Distant

Monday, January 10, 2011
posted by Douglas Keene

And who isn’t? It isn’t really news that stress can bring out the “dark side” in each of us—but it is the topic of recent research. (Find the complete report on which this write-up is based here.) You have likely often seen the write-ups about “personality characteristics” of those in various professions. And it is often a favorite tactic of organizational consultants to give mass “personality” testing and then interpret them in group settings. “You are a(n) introvert/extrovert, yellow/green, leader/follower, et cetera” and that is why you have conflict with your colleague who is not.”  As both psychologists and actual human-type people, we are not fans of these strategies for organizational development.

These are not really personality tests. And the consultants using them are often long on interpretation and short of application. That is, they can tell you a lot about ‘why’ but not ‘what’—as in, what to do about it beyond the standard “be more tolerant”. And applying these findings to attorneys is not new. For example, you can review Susan Daicoff’s work from 1997 on lawyer personalities.

“Individuals who choose to enter law school seem to generally share the following characteristics as children: They are highly focused on academics, have greater needs for dominance, leadership and attention and they prefer initiating activity. Reading is emphasized (and remembered pleasantly in later years). Their fathers tended to be on the dominant and strong side. It was found, in a comparative study, that concern for emotional suffering and for the feelings of others tended to be less emphasized than in the childhood homes of dental or social work students.

Studies of pre-law students indicate that their mental health is similar to that of the general adult population. We find these people demonstrating definite needs to be leaders, to attract attention and to avoid feeling inferior or assuming subordinate roles.

Numerous studies have explored law students’ motivations for going into the field. Most early research addressed the predominantly male student population and found that the primary motives were “interest in the subject matter of the law, a desire for professional training and desire for intellectual stimulation.” Respondents tended to value money and prestige, but only secondarily. Altruistic concerns were relatively unimportant to this group. In recent studies, gender differences do tend to assert themselves, with female law students being more inclined toward altruistic, as opposed to practical, utilitarian and materialistic goals. However, follow up studies reveal that attorneys with these more “realistic or materialistic” goals tended to be far more satisfied in the practice than those who would characterize themselves as “humanitarian.””

Our own thought, after years of working closely with attorneys is that there are as many differences between attorneys as there are similarities. We know attorneys who emote freely, and it works for them. We know attorneys who have a cognitive approach that is contained and somewhat emotionally aloof, and it works for them. We know attorneys who hold themselves above the jurors and those who embrace their shared humanity with the jurors. It works for them. Success is a complex and multi-dimensional achievement, not something discernable by a group-administered test.  It seems it isn’t so much a matter of a personality type that is “right” for an attorney—but rather a practice of being consistent, authentic, and allowing character to shine through. Character matters. And it isn’t that you have a specific sort of character. It’s that you have ‘it’.

Daicoff, S. (1997). Lawyer, Know Thyself: A Review of Empirical Research on Attorney Attributes Bearing on Professionalism. American University Law Review, 46

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