Understanding Lawyer Psychology: An In-Depth Exploration With Larry Richard, PhD

Understanding Lawyer Psychology: An In-Depth Exploration With Larry Richard, PhD

By Ben Chiriboga, Esq.
August 03, 2023 | 8-minute read
Marketing Management and Leadership Management of Individual Personnel Department Management and Motivation Content Type Article Additional Options Content Level: Essential
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Lawyers possess a unique combination of personality traits that require a tailored approach to facilitating successful, team-oriented environments. To uncover what these traits are and how they can influence a team environment, Ben Chiriboga, Esq. (Nexl) spoke with Larry Richard, PhD, about the unique challenges and opportunities of lawyer psychology and how teams can improve collaboration.

Ben Chiriboga, Esq. (BC): Can you tell us about your background and what led you to delve into the study of the lawyer's mind?

Dr. Larry Richard (LR): Thank you for chatting with me, Ben. My personal connection to the legal profession runs deep. Coming from a family of lawyers spanning three generations, becoming a lawyer seemed like the natural path for me. My father was a highly esteemed attorney, and I aimed to follow in his footsteps. However, as I progressed through college and law school, I found myself increasingly drawn to psychology. I couldn't ignore the immense fascination I had for the subject, far surpassing my enthusiasm for the law. In retrospect, the signs were there all along.

BC: What prompted your decision to transition from law to psychology?

LR: After grappling with my misalignment in the legal field, I sought the guidance of a career counselor. Unfortunately, his advice didn't align with my aspirations. He suggested I should continue pursuing a legal career, which felt counterintuitive to my purpose. Disenchanted with the counselor's perspective, I embarked on my journey of exploration. I delved into researching various career paths and stumbled upon the field of career counseling itself. Intrigued by this newfound interest, I pursued a certification course in career counseling and began advising lawyers. It was during this time that I realized the psychological challenges lawyers faced and the need for specialized training to effectively address those issues. Motivated by this revelation, I made the decision to obtain a doctorate in psychology.

BC: It's remarkable how your career trajectory took shape organically, guiding you toward your current area of expertise. Can you elaborate on your specific focus within the realm of psychology?

LR: Initially, I intended to distance myself from the legal profession entirely and focus solely on clinical practice. However, a serendipitous encounter with an old friend who specialized in organizational psychology reignited my interest in working with lawyers and sparked a newfound passion for the intersection of therapy and organizations. I enrolled in a program at Temple University where I received comprehensive training in group dynamics, planned change and teams. Simultaneously, I maintained my interest in individual psychology, honing my skills through additional courses in counseling and testing. The latter opened my eyes to the scientific measurement of personality. Consequently, for my dissertation, I chose to study lawyers, a decision my graduate advisor initially discouraged. Instead of focusing on a single law firm, I ambitiously opted for a nationwide study encompassing 3,000 lawyers, obtaining support from the American Bar Association (ABA).

BC: You mentioned having an extensive collection of personality data, including results from various tests such as the Myers Briggs, Caliper Profile, Hogan, 16 PF, EQ-I, ver. 2.0 and others. Could you tell us more about the significance of these data?

LR: I have gathered approximately 42,000 sets of lawyer personality data over the years, encompassing a wide range of tests. My fascination lies in exploring the scientific data and its implications. I constantly ask myself: “What can we learn from the hard data about the individuals who choose the legal profession?” and “To what extent does personality play a role in their selection, and how much can be attributed to training?”

BC: Are there specific traits or characteristics that stand out when it comes to individuals pursuing a legal career?

LR: Indeed, there are notable traits to consider. Let's take skepticism, for example. Are people naturally skeptical when they enter the field of law or does their skepticism develop through training? The answer is both. We observe a higher prevalence of skepticism among those applying to law school and an even greater level among those accepted. It seems that law school admissions personnel intuitively recognize the importance of selecting skeptical individuals. Conversely, those with lower levels of skepticism, who are more trusting, tend to drop out of law school at a higher rate. This concentration of skepticism intensifies throughout their education, resulting in highly skeptical lawyers by year three of law school.

BC: Have you noticed any variations in these traits over time?

LR: Over the years, I have observed some fluctuations in the levels of skepticism, but it consistently remains significantly higher than the average — never falling below 78%-79%. In fact, I have encountered law firms where the average skepticism score among partners was as high as 92%, which is unprecedented in any other occupation.

BC: That's remarkable. Apart from skepticism, are there other distinct traits lawyers exhibit based on your extensive research?

LR: Among the 21 standard personality traits measured by the Caliper Profile, there are seven atypical traits commonly observed in lawyers. In addition to higher skepticism, these include significantly higher levels of urgency, abstract reasoning and autonomy, as well as lower sociability and resilience. Lawyers tend to be impatient and inclined towards solving complex problems through their intellect. They also exhibit a preference for autonomy and independence. On the other hand, they demonstrate lower sociability, being private and uncomfortable with emotional intimacy. Additionally, the majority of lawyers have low resilience, meaning they are more easily hurt and find it challenging to bounce back from criticism and other interpersonal setbacks.

BC: Your work has mentioned a trait called cognitive empathy, which seems to be low among lawyers. Can you explain the concept and its significance?

LR: Cognitive empathy, or taking the perspective of others, is indeed lacking among lawyers. It goes beyond emotional empathy and involves an intellectual understanding of how others might feel in response to our actions or feedback. This trait has dropped below the tipping point and is a societal trend, not just limited to lawyers. It now has become the seventh Caliper Profile outlier trait.

BC: Are these traits innate or learned? What is the nature versus nurture balance?

LR: Each trait has a mix of nature and nurture. Studies on identical twins reared apart indicate personality traits have a significant genetic component. Among the 21 traits I measured, 18 leaned more towards genetic influence. However, skepticism, empathy and resilience — three of the outlier traits among lawyers — have a higher degree of learned behavior.

BC: Can you describe how these atypical traits align with the changing landscape of teamwork, change management and the increasing emphasis on collaboration in organizations?

LR: That is a crucial question. While traits like high skepticism, low sociability and high autonomy may align with the traditional expectations of lawyering, the evolving nature of teamwork and change management necessitates a consideration of how these traits can be influenced or modified. Lawyers often face challenges when it comes to adapting to more team-oriented environments. Exploring ways to bridge the gap between these atypical traits and the demands of collaboration are significant areas for future exploration.

BC: You mentioned teamwork can be challenging for lawyers due to a combination of personality traits, training and the compensation system. How can organizations encourage lawyers to become more effective team players?

LR: Encouraging lawyers to embrace teamwork requires a multifaceted approach. Firstly, attention must be paid to the compensation system as well as informal reward structures. Lawyers tend to behave according to what they believe will be economically rewarded. By adjusting the incentive system, we can remove the notion that aggressive individualism leads to greater financial gains. However, directly rewarding lawyers for being team players can have its own drawbacks. It may not be advisable to use economic incentives to shape lawyer behavior, but you certainly don’t want to inadvertently incentivize behaviors that are antithetical to your goals. For example, don’t pay large bonuses for rainmakers who produce lots of work and then tell everyone you value teamwork.

Secondly, it's crucial to invest resources in training and developing resilient leaders. Resilience is a learnable trait and has numerous benefits for leaders, including serving as role models for teamwork, making confident decisions and handling criticism without defensiveness. Training leaders to be more resilient positively influences their behavior and the overall team dynamics.

Another key aspect is understanding the distinction between persuasion and influence. Lawyers are trained to think and argue like advocates, which can make persuading them a challenging endeavor. Instead, employing subtle tools of influence, such as leveraging social proof and normative behavior, can be highly effective in shaping their behavior. Research by Robert Cialdini, particularly his book "Influence," offers valuable insights into these techniques.

BC: Could you provide an example of an indirect influencing tool that works well in encouraging lawyers to adopt desired behaviors?

LR: One effective tool is leveraging social norms. By highlighting examples of other lawyers embracing the desired behavior, it subtly communicates that this behavior is the norm within the profession. For instance, if the majority of partners are consistently submitting their timesheets on time, subtly drawing attention to this fact can influence other lawyers to follow suit. It's important to base these examples on genuine performance data and not fabricate them as authenticity is key.

Another technique is the concept of "pre-suasion," as explored in Cialdini's book of the same name. It involves setting the stage and creating a receptive environment before attempting to influence someone. For example, offering lawyers a warm cup of coffee to hold before presenting an influential message can make them more receptive to the subsequent influencing technique. This combination of creating a favorable environment and using influencing tools can have a powerful impact.

BC: Thank you, Dr. Richard, for shedding light on these effective strategies for promoting teamwork among lawyers. It's clear that understanding their unique traits and employing indirect influencing techniques can significantly improve collaboration and overall team dynamics within law firms.

Ben Chiriboga, Esq.

Ben Chiriboga is a marketing and business development legal industry operator, advisor and commentator. As chief growth officer at Nexl, Ben helps law firms evolve their go-to-market strategies to survive and thrive. Ben has spoken to global audiences about legal growth at LegalGeek, FutureLawyer US, LMA, Legal Sales & Service Organization and the New Zealand Bar Association, and his work has been profiled in ArtificialLawyer, Legal Business World News, LegalSites and other publications. Connect with Ben on LinkedIn.