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Can Risk-Averse Lawyers Learn to Embrace Change?


Ogletree Deakins – Larry Richard, J.D., Ph.D., is the founder of and principal consultant at larryLawyerBrain LLC. A former trial lawyer since trained as a psychologist, he now provides organization development consulting to large law firms using behavioral science and psychological research findings.

JATHAN JANOVE: For many years, you have conducted research into the psychology of lawyers. Can you summarize your research and principal findings?

DR. LARRY RICHARD: My research has focused primarily on the personality traits of lawyers. I’ve profiled thousands of lawyers over the past 30 years, and the data very consistently tells the same story: people who choose law as a profession tend to have certain personality traits that are highly atypical. And these atypical traits aid them in being effective at the practice of law. Such traits include a high level of skepticism, high level of abstract reasoning (love of problem-solving and intellectual challenge), and a strong sense of autonomy. But the most striking—and consistent—finding is that lawyers are low on psychological resilience. That is, we’re thin-skinned, and easily get defensive in the face of criticism, rejection or other setbacks.

JJ: In my work with law firms, I hear a lot about the need for change yet continually experience resistance to change. Has this been your experience? If so, what insights does your research offer?

LR: Lawyers score very low on openness to change. It’s a function of both personality type and professional experience. People who are highly skeptical, autonomous, and sensitive to criticism naturally tend to be risk averse. They focus on everything that could go wrong as opposed to what could go right, and they are afraid of being criticized if something does go wrong.

Professional training and the law firm environment compound this tendency. Lawyers continually look for the ways things could go wrong in order to protect their clients. The focus is on reducing risk and not on creating or developing opportunities. Moreover, the adversarial system, which focuses on assigning fault or blame, hardly encourages risk taking.

JJ: People are often surprised when I tell them that lawyers are especially sensitive to criticism. To them, lawyers project an image of self-confidence, which we don’t normally associate with low resilience.

LR: Confidence is not resilience. One can be simultaneously confident and highly defensive. A very defensive person can state his or her case in a bold, confident way, but they’re still being defensive.

JJ: What challenges do these personality traits or styles present for law firm leaders who recognize the need for change in their firms?

LR: Leadership in times of change demands the opposite of how most lawyers think and behave. Risk and uncertainty are necessary parts of the equation. In a world of increasing change and uncertainty, there will never be enough information or data available to a leader before critical decisions must be made. Leaders will have to take chances, stick their necks out, accept the real possibility of failure. To do so without the trust and support of their colleagues makes sustained, positive change an almost impossible hill to climb.

JJ: What can be done to improve this situation?

LR: Fortunately, psychological research over the past 15 to 20 years has produced valuable insight into how mindset change can occur and the positive results it can produce. Research studies have repeatedly shown that when people are given new ways to think about situations, their feelings change, and over time, even their neurochemistry changes.

JJ: Could you explain?

LR: We used to think that “feelings” and “thoughts” were opposites. Many lawyers still believe that emotions are the enemy. However, solid research over the past 50 years shows us that how we think directly influences how we feel. And the natural corollary is that if we change how we think, we change how we feel. Feelings, in turn, are embodied—they produce changes in our body at a chemical and cellular level.

JJ: Do you have an example?

LR: Here’s one involving a person who is low in resilience and faces adversity. Let’s take a first-year law student who has always gotten straight As in school but who now gets a B minus on his or her first law school exam. It’s not the event itself that causes a problem—it’s how the law student interprets the event. In other words, how the student thinks about it, and the story he or she tells himself or herself, dictate the resulting emotional response. Here are two examples of how such a student might react: (1) “I can’t believe I got a B minus! I’m a failure. Nothing I’m doing is working. I’ll flunk out of school now. None of my friends will respect me after this. I might as well quit law school.” (2) “Wow, a B minus. I didn’t realize law school would be this demanding. I may have underestimated what it takes. I am going to study harder this next semester. Luckily, I got good grades in my other classes and I have a lot of other strengths working for me, so I’m sure I can do better next time.”

JJ: Returning to the law firm leader who seeks to overcome resistance to change, what does your research suggest he or she should do?

LR: There are many things such a leader can do. Here are a few of them: First, find role models and thought leaders and approach each of them individually to get them on board. When a thought leader agrees to behave differently, many other lawyers will get on board (even though they often talk as if they won’t, when you look at their behavior you’ll see they tend to do so.)

Second, good leaders listen. They spend time with their constituents understanding the source of the resistance. It may seem counterintuitive or even illogical, but when a leader listens in a neutral way and lets the speaker know that he or she has been understood, it actually increases the speaker’s comfort in subsequently changing. By contrast, if the leader listens in order to form a counter-response, as most of us do, that just hardens the speaker’s adherence to his or her stance.

Third, a leader can find examples in peer firms. Lawyers hate to be the first to do anything, so if you can find examples of changes that have already taken place with positive outcomes in respected peer firms, the argument for change becomes more convincing to many of your constituents.

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