Personality and Law Firm Knowledge Management

In the hype about web 2.0 and social networking, you’d be forgiven for thinking that all you needed to do was purchase the perfect silver bullet (i.e., whatever technology the vendor of the day is hawking) and your organization would be transformed into a hip, reflexively-collaborative, effortless knowledge sharing, 21st century knowledge management heaven.

But what if your organization happens to be a law firm???

In Neil Jordan’s 1992 film, The Crying Game, we hear the story about the frog and the scorpion. The scorpion wished to cross the stream, but had no obvious means of doing so himself. So he asked the frog if the frog would swim across the stream, carrying the scorpion on his back. The very pragmatic frog declined because he couldn’t be sure that the scorpion would not sting him. When the scorpion reasonably pointed out that to sting the frog was to risk the death by drowning of both the frog and the scorpion on his back, the frog relented and agreed to carry the scorpion across the stream. Just before they reached the other side of the stream, the frog felt a sharp pain and realized the scorpion had stung him. When the frog asked the scorpion why he had behaved so badly when they both knew that the scorpion’s action would cause the two of them to drown, the scorpion replied, “I can’t help it, it’s in my nature.”

Is it in the nature of lawyers to be collaborative? By collaborative, I mean more than simply working with others to get a job done. By collaborative, I mean a mindset or tendency that favors sharing intellectual resources with others over individual hoarding, that understands that the work of a group can be so much more powerful than the work of an individual, that prefers to work through problems with others in the belief that this process leads to better solutions. Does this sound like many lawyers you know?

Ronda Muir, a senior consultant with Robin Rolfe Resources, specializes in “the organizational and personal dynamics issues that are unique to law firms and law departments.” In her article, The Unique Psychological World of Lawyers, she discusses the personal style, personality attributes, emotional intelligence and conflict resolution strategies of lawyers, as revealed by psychological testing. These results bear consideration in the context of knowledge management.

Among her findings are the following:

* The psychological profile of lawyers is “strikingly different” from that of the general US population.

* While over 70% of the US population are Extraverts, the majority of lawyers are Introverts, according to the Myers Briggs Type Indicator. This means that lawyers prefer to work things out for themselves rather than to work through things with others. Further, since people tend to distrust those with a different personality style, “Extraverts tend to be suspicious of people who are not as instantly forthcoming with their thinking as they are, whereas Introverts may find off-the-cuff brainstorming dangerous and unprofessional.”

* According to Dr. Martin Seligman, founder of the school of Positive Psychology, optimism is a critical attribute for success and happiness. His testing regarding the correlation between personality attributes (such as optimism) and career success revealed that only lawyering exhibited a high correlation. And that correlation was between success and … pessimism!

* In the Caliper Personality Profile, the highest scoring personality trait for lawyers is skepticism, with a score of 90 as compared to the general population’s score of 50. And, since people tend to use their highest scoring traits in other areas of their lives, lawyers have a hard time suppressing their natural skepticism in interactions that rely on trust and collaboration (e.g., personal relationships, team relationships, partnership relationships).

* Lawyers score high in a sense of urgency (which may be expressed as impatience) and they relish autonomy/independence.

* On the emotional intelligence front, lawyers are badly handicapped, scoring below the national average in the Mayer Salovey Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test.

* As for conflict resolution, lawyers “have strong preferences for competing and avoiding, the two least cooperative of the strategies” outlined in the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode. According to Ronda Muir: “The upshot of this preference is that lawyers tend to either engage in an all-out war over divisive matters, with the intent of `winning,’ or they walk away. “

Taken together, these attributes create a person who prefers autonomy and thinking things through privately rather than working things out with others, brings a high level of pessimism and skepticism (and a low level of trust and collaboration) to every facet of their life, finds “off-the-cuff brainstorming dangerous and unprofessional,” and has a strong preference for competition and conflict avoidance, which are the two conflict resolution strategies least compatible with collaboration.

While the wonderful success of web 2.o and social networking may be entirely consistent with the psychological profile of the general US population, I wonder if they will ever enjoy the same level of success with the lawyer population. To achieve similar levels of collaboration, lawyers would have to act in ways that are contrary to their natures. If the tale of the frog and the scorpion is true, this will never happen.

4 thoughts on “Personality and Law Firm Knowledge Management

  1. One of the collaboration issues with lawyers is that is difficult, if not impossible, to work collaboratively with clients and opposing counsel. Can you imagine trying to negotiate a document in a wiki? Each side would keep changing key provisions back and forth. As to a client, there is the specter of malpractice and personal liability. That is a huge impediment to collaboration. Lawyers will only want to produce final drafts of documents and advice.

  2. Wow, really interesting. You’ve outlined one of those basic statements that go right to the heart of the matter. But, you know, I’m not so sure that good collaborative tools require individual sacrifice. It seems more as though what good collaborative tools do is to capture the tiny acts of interpretation we all make hundreds of times a day, and make these available to others — and, later, to ourselves. Not to gloss over the many negatives, but it does remind me a bit of how ancient Greek travelers would throw a stone on a roadside herm, the boundary/road markers which were at first just piles of rocks, to mark their passage. It is an action that is not so much selfless or sacrificing, as marking an awareness of the group and the role of the individual. Throwing the stone was insurance that the marker would be maintained, for others, for the traveler himself.

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