What Makes Lawyers So Challenging?

What makes lawyers so challenging?

No, this is not the beginning of a lawyer joke! Rather it’s the question that was answered at an informative session held at the Practising Law Institute in New York City.  As part of a day-long program on legal project management, the organizers asked Mark I. Sirkin, Ph.D., to speak about the personality traits of lawyers and their suitability to lead or serve on project teams. (Dr. Sirkin is the co-managing partner of Threshold Advisors, LLC and was formerly a consultant with Hildebrandt.) Using recent research and the Hogan Personality Inventory Scales, Dr. Sirkin identified the following challenges:

  • Lawyers are not designed for teamwork. Most lawyers have the personality trait of Autonomy, which means they would prefer to do their own thing rather than work with others.  Further, not only do they score high in Autonomy, but also in Skepticism and Pessimism. They are trained to assume the worst, look for problems, issue spot. Taken together, these traits can make them hard to be around.
  • Lawyers don’t find it easy to work with others. Lawyers score below the general population in Sociability (i.e., the need for social interaction) and Resilience (i.e., they are thin-skinned).
  • Lawyers are trained for independent action. Law schools traditionally have emphasized individual performance. Contrast this with business schools, which require teamwork from their students from the beginning.
  • Law firms traditionally have rewarded individual performance. If the compensation system of a firm is individualized and competitive, it does not provide incentives for teamwork and cooperation.
  • Lawyers feel fungible. If a lawyer feels like a fungible billing bot, that lawyer will find it hard to identify and pursue an inspiring goal. Sharing inspiring goals is key to establishing team spirit.
  • Lawyers tend to be adversarial. Dr. Sirkin’s data show that many (if not most) lawyers tend to be adversarial by nature. Further, they are tough-minded and tolerant of conflict.
  • Lawyers have high Urgency. A high Urgency score indicates a tendency to rush to action.  Most lawyers score high in Urgency, which means that they tend to lack patience for the early planning that is required for project management and teamwork.
  • Lawyers are not detail-oriented. The data supporting this assertion will surprise lawyers and their critics alike.  When compared to the general population, lawyers tend to be more “big picture” people and less focused on small details.  To the extent lawyers do focus on details, it is often because of their Aesthetics score, which tends to push them toward providing good work product.

While a lifetime of hearing lawyer jokes may predispose you to believe that lawyers have few good traits, the reality is more nuanced than that.  Their self-selection over time tends to concentrate particular traits within the profession, but those traits have been viewed as necessary for survival until now. That said, lawyers at the top of their game are highly functioning individuals who have accomplished a great deal of good in the world.  Nonetheless, from a purely self-referential perspective, I do find this research troubling. What is clear is that the personality traits of many lawyers make them less amenable to general law firm knowledge management efforts. When reinforced by an “eat what you kill” compensation system, they apparently have little incentive to share, cooperate or collaborate.

However, the problem goes far beyond law firm KM. In fact, this discussion left me wondering if the people who had been so successful in a profession that traditionally emphasized independent, adversarial action might now be ill-equipped for the new style of lawyering involving project management, focused teamwork, effective knowledge management and transparency.  Obviously, firms will need to change their training practices.  Will they also have to change their hiring practices?

[Photo Credit: slgckgc]

8 thoughts on “What Makes Lawyers So Challenging?

  1. I am always a bit dubious on the results of these sorts of tests. I certainly see these traits in lawyers, though I am seeing less of the know it all attitude than I saw when I started in legal 12 years ago. Perhaps fewer law students are enrolling in the “How to be an expert in everything, because you’re a lawyer” class in law school. :)I think a combination of high billable hour requirements, billed hour based pay (especially with many firms getting rid of lock step pay), and the desire to do something outside of the office lead to behavior modifications. Are these behaviors just a natural part of people who want to be lawyers, or are some of them learned as a way to cope with the lawyer lifestyle?If people change their behavior because of the eat what you kill system, can changing the system change the behavior?

    1. Thanks, Sean. Healthy skepticism is…well…healthy! To be honest, I pushed the presenter to explain more about his sample and methodology. Once he gave me some additional background on the study, he did say that he thought the concentration of attributes was a reflection of self-selection. In other words, people with these personality traits tend to choose and stick with law as a profession. The ones who don't have this mix of traits tend to either choose something else or stay and struggle. I haven't seen any data that show the extent the compensation system affects personality traits. However, I wonder if the compensation system required high levels of sociability, for example, would lots of current lawyers would be driven from the profession?- Mary

  2. Being a lawyer is really challenging ’cause a lot is expected from you in the first place. Yes, lawyers tend to have high urgency; they tend to seek for results of the actions they’ve made. Maybe because they feel that every problem needs an immediate appropriate solution to prevent further damage.

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