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Six Big Myths About Lawyers

The Careerist

February 19, 2013

Screaming_Man © pressmaster - Fotolia.comOur guest blogger today is Dan Bowling, who penned 10 Happy Tips for Lawyers for us. He is the managing principal of Positive Workplace Solutions, a visiting scholar at University of Pennsylvania, and a senior lecturing fellow at Duke Law School.

Lawyers aren’t psychopaths—at least most of them aren’t—despite what The Business Insider says. Actually, lawyers are a pretty normal bunch. Or maybe resilient is a better word. They better be, given that they are working in a stressful, competitive, and rapidly changing field with ridiculous hours and an uncertain future.

But like The Dude, lawyers abide. This what I have found in interviews, surveys, and coaching engagements with over 1,000 lawyers and law students in a number of law schools. Yes, I know this is contrary to the prevailing narrative about the misery of the profession—a narrative that I admittedly have been a contributor to

So let me clear up the misconceptions and share what I've learned over the years:

Myth 1: Lawyers are miserable. Not so—lawyers are generally satisfied with their lives. The Bell Curve is alive and well. Well-being seems distributed among lawyers in a fairly normal statistical pattern, with most reporting life satisfaction around the middle.

What's more, law students entering law school actually show higher than average well-being. (This spring, we will be surveying 3Ls to measure what law school—and job hunting–has done to their happiness. Stay tuned.)

Myth 2: If you're depressed, that's your problem. For those lawyers and law students not doing so well, there's growing institutional awareness of this problem. There is no question that law practice and law school induce or exacerbate depressive symptoms in a percentage of the population, but law schools are taking this more seriously. Almost every law school makes some level of counseling resources available to students, and some go a step further, like Yale Law's “therapy” dogs during exams. Still, few if any legal institutions are providing the sort of formalized resilience training that is needed to better insulate this at-risk population. 

Myth 3: Negative, cautious types get better grades. Personality traits don’t predict first-year grades. This is based on character strengths studies I conducted at two top 50 law schools with Peggy Kern of the University of Pennsylvania. This was surprising to us. It has long been believed that traits like pessimism and prudence translate into better law school grades (as opposed to grades in other professional schools).

Myth 4: Lawyers are cynical. They are skeptical, but no more so than most highly educated people. In other character strengths surveys, every group of lawyers sampled—from North Carolina country lawyers to their big city counterparts—rank themselves high in critical thinking. Guess what? So do most Americans with postgraduate degrees who took the same surveys.

Myth 5: Successful female lawyers are cold and emotionless. Instead, they attribute their success to humanistic traits. In a 2012 study of high-achieving women lawyers, we found that strong emotional awareness was a robust element of their success. (The study was led by attorney/psychological researcher Pat Snyder.) Which leads to the final myth:

Myth 6: Emotional intelligence is overrated. Actually, it becomes more important with career advancement. Lawyers tend to have a higher I.Q. than the general population, but score lower in emotional or social intelligence, meaning the ability to read and respond appropriately to other people.

Recently, I have noticed more firms talking about the value of emotional intelligence among its partners, arguing that it leads to better client attraction and retention. I agree.

Of course, I have yet to have a recruiting partner ask me to send him my most emotionally intelligent law students.

Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? Email chief blogger Vivia Chen at [email protected]

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How about the myth that lawyers earn over 100K a year? Most do not!

Lawyers are cynical AND Successful female lawyers are cold and emotionless are two tough stereotypes to beat... but we are working on it :-)

Why would anyone go to a lawyer for help if they were crazy and depressed? It's funny to think about really. Thanks for sharing. I should have my lawyer in Cambridge who is also a good friend read this and see what he thinks. http://hilbornandkonduros.ca/about-us/

Thanks for your comments, Larry (which you and I have discussed privately). Obviously, it is hard to convey nuance and exceptions in a 750 word blog. Still, our findings are what they are - and no, they don't mirror yours (I told you we were surprised and that they countered the prevailing narrative).

Thanks for all the commentary. Larry, you and I have talked privately, and you offer a vigourous defense of your research and challenge to ours. Of course, I was working within the confines of a 750 word blog - hard to go into much nuance or detail there on our findings. I will have an article coming out soon with much more nuanced analysis than this post, so stay tuned. But preview - why, if law students are supposed to be far more depressed than similar populations (studies show a high pct. of law students suffer depressive incidents), do their life satisfaction scores (In our research) show them to be at the median at any given point? I think resilience is one answer.

One more addendum to my earlier comment -- in the introduction, Dan says that lawyers are "normal" and "resilient". My data show quite the opposite--the prevailing personality profiles of lawyers are atypical. Lawyers are statistical outliers--their dominant personality traits are different from those found among people in other occupations.

As for "resilient", I have to disagree. I've been gathering data on lawyer resilience for 15 years, and lawyers score very low on this trait--20% lower than the general public, consistently, year in and year out. Moreover, 90% of the lawyers I have tested score in the bottom half of the "resilience" scale. Research on "explanatory style" has shown that strong social connections and an optimistic explanatory style are causally related to higher resilience. Lawyers score very low on "sociability" (a trait strongly related to social connection) and high on "skepticism" (which correlates with pessimism), both factors which keep their resilience in the basement. LRR


Hi everyone. I'd like to share some observations in this space that I already shared with Dan privately. The 6 ideas he raises here are complex, and I don't think we do them justice to simply say "myth" or "true". Let's look at each of them:
Myth 1: "Lawyers are miserable" -- There are all kinds of measures of whether a person is doing well or not. In the 1980's I did my doctoral research on lawyer job satisfaction and personality, and in that process I discovered that the first hurdle to overcome was 'How do you define job satisfaction?' How you ask the question has a lot to do with the kind of answer you get. Studies that asked "How satisfied are you on a scale of 1 to 5" got higher job satisfaction ratings than studies that asked, for example, "Would you recommend that your son or daughter go into law?" Further, studies of "job satisfaction" differ from studies of "engagement" and these differ yet again from studies of "well being." The earlier studies focused on the negative, i.e., dissatisfaction (with the goal of ameliorating suffering), while I'm guessing that Dan's relying on more recent studies that focus on studies of what's working well.

Having muddied the water with those comments, let me say that there is ample data stretching well over 20 years that show that lawyers have higher than average rates of divorce, suicide, depression, substance abuse and job satisfaction compared to the general population. These data come from a tradition of measuring "what's not working". The more recent developments in the field of "Positive Psychology" have shifted the focus to measuring "what's working well". Illogical as it may seem, it's quite possible for lawyers to have scores that are worse than average on the "what's not working" stuff, and to also have average or even above average scores on the "what's working" metrics. We're measuring different people using different measures and we're reporting a different end of the measurement spectrum. I know a lot of lawyers that love practicing law. And I know a lot of lawyers who have suffered with depression and other negative consequences. My own experience in working with about 750 law firms over the past 30 years is that the increasing stresses that lawyers face today, particularly in large law firms, are increasing and causing more dissatisfaction. Many of the lawyers reporting distress will tell you that they love practicing law, but they hate a lot of the other aspects surrounding the practice today. So for me, the bottom line here is that this one is too complex to call, and many lawyers are indeed miserable while there are also a good number whose well-being is at least middling. We live with paradox.

Myth 2: "If you're depressed, that's your problem" I'm not sure it ever was just the problem of the lawyer alone. Most firms I know take depression quite seriously. Years ago many of them didn't really know where to turn to deal with depressed lawyers. Luckily, today there are better EAP's, more and well-trained clinicians, and some superb advances in psychology in the treatment of depression. This is a problem that affects everyone, and it's in both the law firm's interest, the other partners' interest, and the individual's interest for a firm to take institutional responsibility to help the troubled lawyer. Dan then mentions "resilience training"--this refers to a more proactive, preventive approach. Research over the last 20 years has shown that "depression innoculation" is possible and effective. Using a series of cognitive strategies, considerable progress can be made to train people to think differently about the stressors that affect them, and for a large percentage of individuals, this can actually diminish the risk of their becoming depressed. Resilience training not only immunizes against depression, but it can also build psychological resources that can make you a better lawyer and a happier person. I have teamed up with two other lawyers, Paula Davis-Laack and Dave Shearon, both graduates of the same University of Pennsylvania program that Dan attended. Dan, Paula and Dave have all earned a Master's degree in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP), which addresses the latest research on what science tells us about how individuals can thrive psychologically. Paula, Dave and I have created a partnership we call LawyerStrong, and our mission is to teach lawyers to be more resilient in the preventive way I've described above.

Myth 3: Negative cautious types get better grades: I'm not familiar with the study Dan cites, so I can't comment on it, except to say that character strengths are different from personality traits. A few years ago, Shultz & Zedeck, a law professor and a psychologist, did a study of graduates of two San Francisco law schools and used a variety of measures, including the Hogan personality inventory. Certain traits on the Hogan, like "Prudence" (a form of conscientiousness) actually did predict performance in law school and better yet, performance in the real world of law practice. Martin Seligman, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist who started the Positive Psychology field, did research some years ago in which he measured over 140 different occupations and their level of pessimism. Lawyers placed dead last. In most of his research, the greater the pessimism, the lower the performance on the job. Lawyers turned out to have just the opposite pattern, so these are two instances where personality traits do predict performance. Moreover, my own data show that the kinds of personality traits possessed by those entering the law are a very constrained set of traits--there is much less diversity of personality among lawyers than among the general public. The kinds of traits of people who enter the law and succeed include much higher levels of skepticism, autonomy and urgency, and lower levels of sociability and resilience and interpersonal sensitivity. Dan may be right about the link with grades per se, but there is no question that the law attracts people with distinctive personality styles.

Myth #4: Lawyers are cynical. Dan equates "cynical" with "critical thinking" and then says that lawyers are no more likely to do it than other professionals. There is a cluster of traits that hang together--they include skepticism, cynicism (a more virulent version of skepticism), and pessimism. There is a completely separate trait called Abstract Reasoning or Analytical Thinking that has to do with liking to think critically. The two are independent trait clusters--you can be high on both, low on both, or high on one and low on the other. They're not the same. Most professionals are high in Abstrat Reasoning or critical thinking, including lawyers. But lawyers are WAY higher in the other set of traits, which I'll call the "Skepticism" cluster--in fact, it is a defining trait for lawyers. I just wrote a blog post about this trait last week (www.lawyerbrainblog.com) suggesting that it's here to stay, at least for the time being.

Myth #5: Successful female lawyers are cold and emotionless: This one is tricky. The personality data on lawyers--my own and those published by others--strongly suggests that women who go into law and stay in law look more like men in terms of the distribution of their traits. Most personality traits are gender-neutral but there are a few traits (e.g., "Feeler" on the Myers-Briggs, "Sociability" on the Caliper, etc.) on which in society in general, women tend to score slightly higher than men do. (Men score higher on "assertiveness" and on "stress resistance.") However, among women who have been in law ten years or more, most of the gender differences disappear, almost entirely by womens' scores moving more in the direction of men's scores. (See my article on our Hogan personality research from 2009.) I would not characterize the traits of male lawyers as "cold and emotionless" but there's no question that the typical lawyer personality is less comfortable with emotionality and is less warm and agreeable than the average person. Having said that, Pat Snyder's study is not contradictory--Pat was looking at women "super lawyers", i.e., lawyers who by the ratings of their peers are judged to perform excellently. There is evidence that excellence--in law and in other occupations--is more likely among individuals who are high in emotional intelligence, and high in what the VIA Inventory of Strenghts (the tool Pat used) calls "heart strengths". We see the same pattern when we study excellence in a law firm as part of building a competency model--the top performers are not only excellent lawyers, but in addition, they have better people skills. Don't confuse the question of what kinds of people go into law in general, and what kinds of lawyers display excellence. My only comment is that Pat only studied women lawyers--we have no idea if excellent male lawyers might also show heart strengths. Based on my other data, I suspect that we would find that. Such strengths are diffeentiators of excellence in many fields.

Finally, myth #6: I completely agree with Dan here.

I hope this adds to the conversation. Dan, thanks for the opportunity to opine. Larry

I'll have to agree with the fact that are false. Although it may seem like lawyers are cynical ( Facebook's privacy policy for example ), they really aren't. For the most part anyways. There may be a few lawyers who are a bit cynical, but there are very few of them. Thanks for sharing!

Probably depends on the lawyers you ask. If you survey partners at Quinn with their $4.4M PPP, they're probably pretty happy, yah. Talk to a few public defenders in the trenches, I suspect you might get a different answer (e.g., compassion fatigue, overwhelming debt, etc.).

RE: Myth 4, Lawyers are cynical. Lawyers are the most sarcastic people I know, and most people confuse sarcasm with cynicism. But then again, most people aren't lawyers, so it isn't surprising that they don't parse the fine distinction between these concepts.

How do you reconcile your comment about lawyers being resilient with the work of Dr. Larry Richard, whose studies show lawyers scoring outlier-low on "resiliency"?

This low resiliency quotient is considered a major barrier to business development success because it's manifest in reluctance to try for fear of rejection, looking foolish, etc.

High time that some of the myths surrounding lawyers were busted! Understanding the real attributes of successful lawyers - and encouraging them in a firm culture - can affect not only a lawyer’s well-being but a firm’s bottom line. The women in our (Myth No. 5) study had analytical skills aplenty, but they used their hefty supply of heart strengths to become rainmakers and retain clients. They took their practices to the next level.

"Myth 5: Successful female lawyers are cold and emotionless." It would be great to have him debate that sex therapis who doomed female lawyers to a lonely, life where they were merely dominating the men in their lives... Love your posts!

This is boring. Reading it made me want to take a nap.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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