All in the mind

GC picks the brains of psychologists to uncover insights for corporate counsel to bear in mind…

What makes executives tick? What goes on underneath the corporate veneer? What draws people to their professions in the first place? And how can the answers to these questions be used to help those in the corporate world, like lawyers, better understand themselves, the work they do and their relationship with the rest of their businesses?

These are complex issues, but at a time when the topics of wellness and mental health are increasingly being brought into the spotlight, answers to questions of psychology are not as elusive as they might otherwise have been.

Tell me about yourself…

If asked to describe the ‘typical’ lawyer, the person on the street might have a few ideas. Popular culture is strewn with stereotypes of lawyers, some admirable, many not. But is it possible to truly make generalisations about the typical personality traits a lawyer might have?

Yes, according to psychologist (and former trial lawyer) Dr Larry Richard. After ten unhappy years in practice, Richard followed his heart into psychology. But far from leaving the law behind, he remains fascinated by it – or by one aspect, at least.

‘Having put in all that time and grown up with my colleagues in law school and practice, I said “I’m going to study us and find out what makes lawyers tick”,’ he explains.

At his Pennsylvania-based consulting firm, LawyerBrain, Richard applies neuroscience, social psychology, positive psychology, leadership science, and a variety of other social science disciplines to lawyer performance.

‘Lawyers are the most atypical occupation on the planet. We are more different from the general public than any other occupation since data has been published. We are the original outliers,’ he says.

Among 21 traits measured on a standard personality profile, Richard’s research shows that lawyers’ average scores for seven of these are dramatically atypical compared to the general public (it’s considered unusual for even one trait to be atypical in most occupations). According to his research, lawyers score highest on scepticism, as well as on need for autonomy, urgency (read impatience) and ability for abstract reasoning. So far, so predictable, perhaps. But he also found that lawyers score low on sociability, psychological resilience, and cognitive empathy.

Richard argues that scepticism is particularly encouraged at law schools, which, he says, attract candidates already predisposed to this trait and then train them to be even more so.

‘The training that we have as lawyers trains us to look for the negative. We are trained to look for problems, what could go wrong, what is wrong, what’s not ok – we ignore the 95% that’s working. Whenever anyone else makes an assertion, we’re trained to always question the underpinnings of what they’ve said: never accept, never give the benefit of the doubt, always challenge. We’re trained to be vigilant about hidden motives, what do you really mean by that, what’s your agenda – it’s that kind of hidden, almost paranoid mindset. All of these things make someone a very competent lawyer, because the better you can do these things, the more you’re going to protect your client from a host of unseen potential problems,’ he explains.

‘But there is a price to pay and here’s the built-in tension. All the other roles that we ask lawyers to play these days require just the opposite, because almost all the other roles are founded on relationships.’

In Richard’s view, supervision, mentoring, managing, leading, being collegial, innovative – all important roles for lawyers as they climb the career ladder, particularly in-house – could be made more challenging by legal training.

‘Every one of these roles requires people to bring out their positive emotions and their connections with people, and yet scepticism and negativity inhibits their effectiveness. So we are constantly in this situation where there’s a tension between our role as a lawyer and all the other roles that we often have to play simultaneously – and that creates stress,’ says Richard.

‘Today, most corporations are trying to build in collaboration and teamwork, mainly because the business of business has gotten more complex as the information explosion has accelerated. You can’t do it all alone, you need to count on a team that has lots of different expertise, so collaboration is the norm these days. But the norm today in the legal profession is that we’re lone gunslingers. The nature of business is moving us all towards collaboration, towards people who are optimistic – and the training as lawyers is moving away from those corporate goals.’

Reaching out

In today’s corporations, forming productive partnerships with colleagues in other enterprise functions is key for organisational culture and to providing effective and valued legal advice. Lawyers can – and do – succeed in the corporate world, with the general counsel role often incorporated as a valued part of the C-suite, and former GCs increasingly taking up non-legal as well as broader, non-executive roles.

But could an understanding of psychology, emotions and behaviour oil the machine, giving in-house lawyers a leg up in forming those crucial bonds, and the skills to make better decisions?

‘I think there is perhaps a growing tendency to touch on these types of things. I think it’s quite en vogue over the last few years to talk about emotional intelligence, or EI. And EI is a lot about empathising and taking the other’s perspective and I think that was certainly something which lawyers have been encouraged to do. But is it baked into our training? Not really. I think we are trained as lawyers, certainly [in the United Kingdom], to almost work on a solo basis, and reach decisions on a rationalised and logical basis. It’s not an entirely social process,’ says career general counsel Adam Moy.

As a former general counsel in the financial services sector in the UK (he led the group legal function in London during Co-Op Bank’s restructuring until 2016), Moy first became curious about psychology after his wife suffered a devastating stroke. Fortunately, she recovered, and Moy was able to follow his new interest, eventually taking time out to complete an MSc in social and cultural psychology at the London School of Economics.

‘Social and cultural psychology looks at our behaviours with each other as humans – including how we have evolved as humans in a social context. The cultural element is how psychology and behaviours can vary between cultures and are influenced by factors such as where you may live in the world, belief systems and social norms, all of which shape your psychology. We also considered evolutionary psychology, one aspect of which is how we have evolved as humans through our unique ability to cooperate with each other,’ he explains.

Moy was most recently interim head of legal for corporate functions at TSB Bank. But his studies have left him with a keen awareness of the benefits an understanding of social psychology can bring, particularly in decision-making.

‘We were taught about the triadic paradigm: as a human being there is “self”, which is a completely interdependent relationship with “other”, and also with the “object” – a discussion of the environment, the context, the issue. No one of those is more important than the other, and if you think of the world through that lens, it may assist in understanding the key components of effective decision-making, through which leadership can emerge,’ he explains.

‘It will lead you down the path of: how do we listen, how do we take perspectives of other people? One classic theory about this is “intersubjectivity”, and this is really about the mutual exchange of thoughts and feelings while we’re interacting with another person. As humans, we have an evolved ability to sense what the other person might be thinking, and they might have an inkling about what we’re thinking too. So, if you’re looking at decisions, you’re trying to take the other person’s perspective, validate their feelings, and reach a decision through that process of interaction, which will hopefully be a good decision because it reflects both parties’ intentions.’

Lawyers score low on sociability, psychological resilience, and cognitive empathy.

He adds: ‘All behaviour between humans is a form of communication. Decision-making in any field should be dialogical communication (two-way) based on that paradigm.’

Moy has been in talks with law firms who are interested in the intersection of psychology and legal performance, and he believes he can see the beginnings of a move to tap into the workforce’s fundamental behavioural processes in today’s business world.

‘A lot of emphasis is being put on effective collaboration – working alongside peers, working with other stakeholders, having a much more holistic view of the organisation. I’ve worked in financial services and banking, and risk management is at the top of the agenda for GCs and other professionals. There are a lot of people involved in that world, whether it’s the risk team, compliance function, finance colleagues, or others tasked with governance or protecting customer outcomes and reputation. You have to work with people who haven’t had the same training, and who think of risk in probably a quite different manner than how we might,’ he says.

‘A good GC will obviously build strong stakeholder relationships with everybody in these fields. But you can only do that if you’re cooperating and using some of these things that we’ve been talking about.’

Sometimes, says Moy, it’s simply a matter of stepping back and taking the time to cultivate a proper understanding of a matter before diving in with a decision.

‘There’s a celebrated psychology paper which broadly says, you say something to me, I repeat to you what I’ve understood, and then you confirm or clarify. All communication, if you want to lead to a proper and mutual understanding, cannot be done in less than three turns,’ he explains.

‘You might think: Right. I’m going to do this. This is how I’m going to approach it. I’m going to build up this brilliant project and then I’m going to execute it. But how many people have you consulted, have you listened to properly, have you really understood their perspective and validated it? Have you formed the interactions so that you have better insight into their “list” and you’re going to reflect that in your project plan?’

‘Lawyers are increasingly aware of their role in influencing and shaping an organisation’s ethical and cultural footprint, which itself determines a range of outcomes. Our social psychological processes shape that culture, and understanding some of the building blocks can help us, alongside others, in setting a clear cultural identity,’ he adds.

The power of emotion

For in-house lawyers, tapping into the wider organisation, although essential, can be a source of anxiety. On top of any dispositional reluctance to step outside the lawyerly comfort zone, there can be an inherent tension between the general counsel’s need to act as the company conscience and protect the organisation, while also working to further the company mission and avoid being seen as the department of ‘no’.

In some ways, this tension is highly analogous to the work of Rebecca Schaumberg, assistant professor of operations, information and decisions at Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. She studies ‘social’ emotions, particularly ‘self-conscious, moral’ emotions like guilt, pride and shame – in all types of people, not just lawyers.

Dr Larry Richard’s seven lawyer personality traits

I have spent 30 years publishing data about personality traits of lawyers. The system I use measures 21 traits, seven of which are statistical outliers:

  1.  A much higher need for autonomy: we do not want to be told what to do.
  2. Very high on abstract reasoning, we love arguing and analysing.
  3. Very high on urgency – we can’t wait, we finish people’s sentences, we’re impatient, we’re always wanting to cut to the chase.
  4. Low on sociability, we’re very awkward around relationships and intimacy, we’re uncomfortable disclosing a lot about ourselves, we’re very private, and it’s hard to initiate connections with people.
  5. We’re sceptical. That’s the hallmark of practising law – we’re trained to be sceptical in law school, but law also attracts people who are sceptical by disposition. You’ve got sceptical people by nature trained to be even more sceptical in law school – and the people who are less sceptical drop out at a systematically higher rate from law school, so you concentrate the sceptics.
  6. We are very low in psychological resilience when criticised or rejected. We are very thin-skinned, we are easily wounded, we’re always imagining critics – and that has big implications for everything, including why we tend to make more risk averse decisions.
  7. We’re low in a particular type of empathy called cognitive empathy. We don’t naturally step into the shoes of others and understand the world from their perspective.

‘These emotions are interesting to me within an organisational context, because these are the emotions that link the individual to the collective – we wouldn’t feel these emotions in the absence of others. I’m interested in how the propensity to experience these emotions changes our relationships towards the collectives to which we belong,’ she explains.

Schaumberg has found that when people are highly prone to an emotion like guilt or shame, they contemplate decisions about a future course of action through a lens of emotional anticipation – conjuring up the emotional experience of their future self in the event of that action, and then moderating their behaviour to avoid that experience.

‘People who are prone to moral emotions anticipate moral or ethical decisions. They think about which actions would disappoint or harm other people. When people anticipate these feelings of guilt, they do a fairly good job in making decisions or adjusting their behaviour so they never end up in that situation that actually disappoints or harms others. The way that legal regulations operate like an external constraint, these emotions operate like internal constraints that align our behaviour to hopefully promote collective goals.’

This idea of the collective, or social environment, is key to how individuals regulate and prioritise moral decision-making when faced with competing constituencies – for example, long-term and short-term goals, or between organisational areas with opposing needs or expectations, Schaumberg has found.

‘You first have to internalise the standards of the collective. Let’s say it’s my organisation. I have to feel committed to my organisation and I have to internalise its values in order for these values to be meaningful to me. Once I’ve done that, you could say it’s about emotional management. When I act in line with these values, I feel pride. When I fail to act in line with these values, I feel guilt or shame. Over time, I learn to act in ways that produce the most desirable emotional state.’

The role of legal counsel can, in some ways, be seen as a metaphor for the internal struggle individuals go through when making decisions with moral significance.

‘These emotions are the conscience of society that makes sure that we grapple with those dilemmas. It doesn’t always mean that we make decisions that are, in the eyes of others, the most moral or the most principled – but we’re grappling with them,’ she says.

‘If the organisation were an entity, and you have a self-interest arm, well, you also need a conscience arm – and that’s the guilt and shame that we have internally. The legal counsel, in some ways, can be that – and it’s a really important check. In the same way that I think these emotions are hugely important for our individual behaviour, having people dedicated to being that check is hugely important for the success of the organisation or the collective.’

Schaumberg doesn’t yet have the data to determine whether lawyers are more prone to guilt than non-legal folk – but such data could be available soon. Her team has been following a group of US-based MBA students for nearly a decade in the hope of comparing their personality traits with their career choices and progression.

A higher propensity towards guilt might inspire behaviours that don’t look like the most ethical choices.

‘We want to ask, is there a selection mechanism where people who have these emotions are selecting into certain types of professions and selecting out of other types of professions? Or are there certain organisations or types of companies that lead people to become more moral or ethical?’

Guilt and shame are, of course, uncomfortable. But, for those especially disposed to feeling or anticipating these emotions, the experience needn’t be entirely negative, says Schaumberg.

‘The harder you’re willing to think about a moral problem, that’s associated with higher levels of moral character and integrity. We find that people who are willing to confront and grapple with moral problems also are willing to confront and grapple with other tough decisions. This depth of thought can lead to more insightful decisions.’

However, warns Schaumberg, a higher propensity towards guilt might sometimes inspire behaviours that don’t look like the most ethical choices to external observers.

‘People can feel a tension between different values or principles. For instance, people might experience a tension between being loyal (which can be a moral quality) to an organisation versus potentially harming people outside the organisation. There you have two moral principles in conflict. If I care deeply about my organisation and I care deeply about loyalty, the idea of not being loyal to my company would be painful to me. It could also induce guilt, leading to behaviours that can end up looking like they harm other people, but they are driven by this other moral quandary,’ she explains.

A company lawyer placed in any sort of moral conflict might feel stress, although hopefully such circumstances would be rare. But Richard believes that the day-to-day legal role, with its focus on anticipating problems, can accelerate the stress levels of lawyers, while at the same time ill-equipping them to cope effectively with that stress.

‘It causes us to atrophy our capacity to find the good – so we tend to be pessimistic. Research has shown that negative thinking produces negative feelings, and feelings are always associated with hormonal changes. And so negative thinking produces cortisol, adrenaline, norepinephrine, all harmful chemicals which are good in short bursts, that save us from the sabre tooth tiger, but which are not good when they’re in your system long term,’ he says.

‘Lawyers have 3.6 times the level of clinical depression compared to the general public. In a recent ABA survey, 28% of the lawyers surveyed reported depression. The survey also showed dramatically elevated levels of substance abuse, particularly during the first ten years of practice. These elevated levels of substance abuse are often hidden and very damaging – they produce higher levels of divorce, higher levels of distress, work problems, absenteeism. There’s a huge cost to all of that.’

To combat these risks, Richard recommends techniques to improve resilience, training the brain to seek out positives and identify strengths, not just deficiencies that need improving. He advocates focusing on positive social emotions such as gratitude, compassion and pride. But, he says, research strongly shows that social connection is the most powerful antidote to problems caused by negativity.

‘I mean ongoing, authentic connections with people. Where you interact with people and you reveal your true self, which might entail some risk or vulnerability, and you show a genuine interest in the other person. Listening to people’s stories, giving them your full attention – there’s actually some very compelling research on the power of presence, the power of full attention in building social connection,’ he says.

‘There is strong evidence that these shifts in mindset not only change the outlook, but they also change your biology, they change your immune system for the better, so people get sick less often, they have less frequent common colds, they can actually live longer, and they are more likely to make balanced decisions. That’s a bit of speculation on my part, but all the pieces are there for me to make that inference.’

The field of psychology is broad and covers a huge range of specialisms from which personal and organisational insight may be drawn. But perhaps a deeper understanding of psychological processes, especially social ones, can help bring success in the growing number of tasks and expectations for lawyers in the corporate world. It might also enhance that elusive quality: wellbeing. Keep that in mind.