Inside the Lawyer’s Mind: How ‘Legal’ Is Your Personality?

A lawyer personality doesn’t always follow a defined criterion of chiselled traits and qualities, but there’s quite an array of factors that make ‘the lawyer mind’. Below Lawyer Monthly discusses with Charlie Bell, Director at Vardags.

It’s a well-worn turn of phrase echoed throughout the hallowed halls of law school, but what does it actually mean to ‘think like a lawyer”? One US psychologist, Dr Larry Richard, has spent over three decades researching what makes those in the legal profession tick.

Having studied over 1000 lawyers using the Caliper Profile—a detailed psychological self-assessment taken under supervision—Dr Richard found several “distinctive ‘outlier’ personality traits that dramatically differ from the general public.” According to him, these can be both the secret to lawyers’ success and their undoing.

Born sceptics

A natural proclivity to place assertions made by others under intense scrutiny pays off in spades in a high stakes courtroom battle, so it’s probably a good thing that the lawyers studied demonstrated atypically high levels of scepticism. Yet while sceptics are “well-suited for adversarial encounters”, Dr Richard warns that the tendency to take things with a blood pressure-raising pinch of salt can be counterproductive when it comes to rallying a team, such as mentoring trainees or chairing a committee.

Patience is not a virtue

Like scepticism, another outlier trait exhibited by lawyers—urgency—has its dark side. Here, Dr Richard doesn’t mince his words; urgent people “can be annoying”, with a tendency to be brusque and impatient. But it’s certainly not all bad news. Those described by their peers as “excellent lawyers” scored 20% higher than the general population in urgency, so perhaps prizing efficiency and economy in all matter is their secret to success.

Lone wolves…

Surprisingly, given the profession’s client-facing nature, lawyers score lower than average in sociability. Dr Richard attributes this to a prioritisation of intellectual rigour above all else. He stresses that low scorers are “not necessarily anti-social” but “simply find it uncomfortable to initiate intimate relationships”, instead relying on existing ones. However, it’s telling that the research doesn’t break down its subjects by practice area; it’s hard to imagine that a solicitor with low sociability could, for instance, make a success of family law, which requires bucket loads of personal interaction and, as very best in the niche know, a generous capacity for empathy.

…With sensitive souls

While we’re on the topic of emotions, Dr Richard also claims that lawyers score low on resilience, or ‘ego strength’, meaning that they can find it difficulty to take criticism on the chin, and are imbued with a “self-protective quality”.

Independent go-getters

According to the research, top performing lawyers score in the 89% percentile in autonomy, meaning that micromanagement can leave them bristling. Yet highly autonomous lawyers are also the industry trail-blazers who will leave no stone unturned when it comes to meeting (and exceeding) their clients’ demands. These are litigators who, thanks to their creative thinking and determination to get things done, will shape the justice system of tomorrow.

So, just how seriously should we take this research? The use of personality tests in the workplace has always been controversial, with concerns ranging from the reliability of self-reporting, to the lack of consensus amongst psychologists as to what actually constitutes a stable personality trait, as opposed to a mutable mode of behaviour.

I’ll leave these quibbles to the experts. As for lawyers, sceptical and autonomous as they apparently are, it’s safe to say that they can make up their own minds.

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