Can Old Dogs Learn New Tricks?

When I was asked to write a blog, I had no idea what to call it. I decided I’d start writing and figure it out later. The name Lawyer Bridge reflects a desire to bridge the gap between the evolution of the legal services market and the viewpoint and habits that persist among many attorneys. Very few lawyers have the time or the inkling to get the big-picture view of the rapidly-evolving legal industry, but they feel the pressure of change. When I practiced at a large law firm, I often thought about how the time I spent on a case translated to my clients’ money, and I constantly performed the cost/benefit analysis in terms of dollars at stake versus dollars the client was spending for me to advocate on their behalf. I came to law after having worked in the business world, so my view was different from many lawyers who attended law school directly after college. Fifteen years later, there’s a much greater emphasis on the intersection of law practice and the business of law – technology, business development, marketing, and finance all play a greater role in today’s legal market. The economic downturn, fierce competition, pricing pressures and advances in technology have coalesced to create an environment where change is constant and adaptation a must. The business of law has become as important as the practice of law itself.

One of the largest stumbling blocks to change and adaptation is attorneys themselves (and not just law firm attorneys). Certain personality traits allow lawyers to excel at what they do but hold them back in other areas, many of which are vital to be successful in a very competitive industry. General Counsels are expected to be savvy business people, to be strategic, to not just do legal work but provide high-level business counsel to their executives. Likewise, law firms and clients expect lawyers to develop business, use technology, engage in project management, collaborate, and communicate effectively. One description of the new skill sets and qualities required for 21st century lawyers is aptly dubbed the T-shaped lawyer, reflecting the non-legal skills lawyers must now possess.

Since the start of a new year is a good time to get a fresh perspective, I wanted to highlight those facets of attorneys’ personalities that make adapting so difficult, and in doing so, suggest a start to tackling these challenges. In my search for the latest insights, I came across a not-so-new Altman Weil report that goes a long way in explaining the barriers to change and adaptive behaviors. These personality traits appear at higher levels in attorneys than the general public. Lest someone think I am taking potshots at lawyers, I recognize these traits in myself and realize they were, in part, what attracted me to the legal profession in the first place. They also make me feel a kinship with practicing lawyers.

Lawyers have much higher levels of skepticism than most people. No brainer, right? Skepticism has at its base doubt and a questioning attitude toward knowledge or facts. Often referred to as critical thinking, it’s a very good skill to protect clients when reviewing transactions or litigating a case. However, in today’s market lawyers also need to sell, manage, collaborate, build relationships and creatively solve problems. Negative thinking can really get in the way. Lawyers’ skepticism has been found to increase over time because the law firm environment perpetuates skepticism, and this can mean a permanent state of seeing the glass half-empty or an inability to entertain new ideas for doing things. At a time when clients expect their attorneys to add value and act as trusted advisors, chronic skepticism is a hindrance.

Dr. Larry Richard’s report also sheds light on the differences in personality traits of rainmakers versus service partners in law firms. Successful rainmakers are more assertive, sociable, risk-taking, confident and significantly less skeptical than service partners. Rainmaker traits in corporate counsel can also be very helpful in servicing and creating good relationships with internal clients. Most lawyers are not naturally inclined in these areas, so they need training in sales and in client relationship management. Whether you can make a service partner into a rainmaker is a relevant question firms should ask, as well as being mindful of these attributes in associate hiring.

Lawyers also exhibit higher levels of urgency (which can translate to impatience). A sense of urgency is excellent for meeting deadlines, but not so great for the lawyer/client relationship. People with high urgency levels can also be abrupt and impulsive. Technology solutions to create efficiencies abound today, but attorneys are often “too busy” to get trained in how to effectively use them (learning new technology also taps into attorneys’ challenge with resiliency as described later).

Sociability is a personality trait on which lawyers score much lower than the general public. When clients want more transparency and predictability, more communication is necessary. Relationships between lawyer and client are incredibly important to attracting and keeping business, but often there’s way too little communication during the course of an engagement. One former general counsel asserts that many lawyers are introverts, another challenge to having the kinds of on-going conversations that lead to effective client relationships.

Lawyers also measure remarkably low on resilience compared to the general public. People with low resilience feel more negatively about change because it makes them feel anxious. They can also be hypersensitive to criticism and negative feedback. By contrast, people with high resilience have higher emotional awareness and are more optimistic. The transition from law firm practice to a greater team and sales orientation was quite stark in my experience. Sales people need to be resilient because sales cycles in service industries can be quite long. Rejection is a regular occurrence, so taking things personally is a hurdle to being successful, and negativity is a plague in this area.

Lastly, attorneys highly value autonomy. They “resist being managed,” “bridle at being told what to do,” and “prize their independence,” according to Dr. Richard. Team selling, alternative pricing structures, client relationship management, and technology and LPM adoption all require the business side to be involved in lawyer engagements. More and more companies with large in-house teams now have legal operations managers and directors responsible for managing outside counsel, budgets and creating efficient processes. These changes require lawyers to take a more team-oriented approach and to value those business aspects separate from the substantive practice of law.

Given lawyers’ personality traits, it’s not difficult to see why they are challenged in adapting to the new landscape. But adapt we must, or risk being left behind. Awareness is a powerful first step. If you want to immediately put off an attorney, start talking about “emotional self-awareness,” which is what is required to examine your own personality traits. Analyzing another’s behavior is a lot different from insight into your own. I’ve always said that I give much better advice than I take. Importantly, people who regularly attempt to understand themselves and seek insight from others are often more effective leaders. The only way to get better at adjusting to change and venturing out of your comfort zone is to know what you can handle. “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” This is true of individual personality traits and behaviors which are not conducive to innovation and change. So, although there are no easy answers, change starts by examining the barriers to it. And the classic personality traits of lawyers are a great place to start.

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