I’ve Got You Under My (Thin) Skin: Personality and Motivation in Lawyers

9 Feb

Post By David Hobbie,  ILTA KM PG Steering Committee Member and Blogmaster

At a meeting of legal knowledge managers I recently heard a presentation by Mark Sirkin, a consultant and expert in personality profiling, and, specifically, the personality profiles of lawyers as distinct from the general population.  He raised some intriguing points about those differences, which could potentially be harnessed by all those seeking to improve knowledge sharing and seeking behaviors inside law firms, or who are attempting to manage other types of change in lawyer-occupied organizations.  By contrast to much other speculation about lawyer personality that may take place at law firm administrative or technical conferences,  Dr. Sirkin’s thoughts were backed up by multiple extensive personality surveys, formal academic studies.

By way of full disclosure, I should note that I am a lawyer and may share some of the personality traits and motivations identified herein.

Why Emotions Are Important

It may seem that working with highly intellectual and intelligent professionals such as lawyers would not be assisted with a rich understanding of emotions or motivations.  Nothing could be further from the truth. For one thing, our efforts to communicate with lawyers are enriched by an appreciation that, as Dr. Alfred Mehrabian pointed out, 93% of communication is process (emotional and unconscious) and 7% is content.  Some of the most important communication happens very fast and on an emotional level.

Emotions are also critical to our ability to work together (collaborate). Emotions evolved to help us survive by working together.  Emotions are signals that provide us data about people (and sometimes situations).

Species Of Emotions

Emotions come in five flavors: Drives, Emotions, Basic Motives, Personality, and Complex Motives.  Drives are Darwinian concerns such as hunger, thirst, and reproduction.  Emotions are hard-wired, but expression is socially constrained.  Personality in turn has five traits that can be measured and observed.  Complex Motives combine personality, emotions, and the social situation, and are particularly significant for knowledge management and technology adoption.

Contrary to some lawyer’s perceptions of their own skills, there is very little correlation between emotional quotient (EQ) and intelligence quotient (IQ).  Lawyers can think that if they understand one thing they understand all things, but this is certainly not true with EQ.

The skills of understanding your own internal emotional state and recognizing that of others (i.e., externally directed) are highly correlated.

Challenges Of Working With Lawyers

Lawyers have a *lower* emotional quotient than the average population.

Based on multiple studies, lawyers are higher in skepticism, autonomy, urgency, and pessimism than the general population.  Lawyers are also higher in information-seeking; specifically, they enjoy learning more than the general population (not surprising given they all survived three years of law school.)

Lawyers are also lower in sociability and resilience.  In other words, they are “thin-skinned” (his words, not mine).

Some of this may be innate (people with these traits are attracted to the profession and do well in it) and some learned.  Dr. Sirkin noted that teams are not broadly used in law school (especially contrasted with business school).  The compensation system is individualized and competitive, and doesn’t reward cooperation.

Many lawyers are naturally adversarial.  In the group formation process they may get stuck in the “storming” stage of high conflict (Dr. Sirkin was referring to Tuckman’s four stages of group development of forming, storming, norming, and performing).

Generational differences around information handling and socialization complicate any overview of lawyers’ reaction to change and technological change.

The “PRICE” model posits that people are motivated in their workplace decisions by seeking Predictability (certainty), Rank, Independence, Connection, and Equity.  The desire for Rank is potentially in conflict with that for Equity, and the desire for Independence is potentially in conflict with that for Connection.

Dr. Sirkin suggested that of these motives, lawyers tend to value and are motivated by a desire for Independence or autonomy.  Many, even practice area leaders, do not want to lead others, but they don’t want others to tell them what to do.

Good leaders try to maximize all elements of motivation.  Pushing one at the expense of the others create an imbalanced organization.  Low levels of motivation hurt firms.  Signs include dissatisfaction, disengagement, defections, and ultimately dissolution.

Everyone can get better at emotional intelligence through coaching and practice.  Working with motivations can be improved through awareness of inherent tensions between different motivations.

Leadership in part is shown by taking care of other people.  Flat organizations don’t really exist, as natural leaders will emerge.

You might need to know the personality profile of the individual lawyer you are dealing with to know what their motivations might be. A specific person’s personality can predict the best motivators.

KM Professional Tips

Match the payoff with motivation.  If rank is the key motivation, a new tool will “help you beat / stay on top of the competition.”  If connection, the tool may “help your group stay connected and share information.”

Find friendly early adopters.  The named leader is not always the right person to try something new.  Groups can have multiple leaders.

When in doubt, maximize the PRICE motivations.


2 Responses to “I’ve Got You Under My (Thin) Skin: Personality and Motivation in Lawyers”


  1. Farewell and Welcome | ILTA KM - October 9, 2013

    […] I’ve Got You Under My (Thin) Skin: Personality and Motivation in Lawyers, by David Hobbie […]

  2. Can It Be “Just The Facts”? Uncertainty and Verification in Litigation and Our Organizations | ILTA KM - April 7, 2014

    […] very low tolerance for factual uncertainty and risk compared with other businesspeople (see, “I’ve Got You Under My (Thin) Skin: Personality and Motivation in Lawyers”).  So, three of Weinberg’s lessons should be considered in creating and developing legal […]

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