Managing lawyers is like herding cats – or is it?
In 2002, Larry Richard published his renowned article “Herding Cats: The Lawyer Personality Revealed”. After many years of investigating the personality types of lawyers, he identified some distinct patterns which confirmed that lawyers were indeed different from the general public. What is more, the combination of these “lawyer-like” characteristics made lawyers particularly difficult to manage, giving weight to the old saying “managing lawyers is like herding cats”.
In order to stay up to speed with the expectations of young lawyers, the Bucerius Center on the Legal Profession works closely with Tomorrow’s Lawyers. From what we observed, young lawyers do not seem very feline. So, we decided to investigate whether things had changed: Are Tomorrow’s Lawyers really like cats?
In 1998 Larry Richard used the Caliper Profile Test to study the personality traits of US lawyers, mostly in senior management positions in law firms and corporate law departments. The Caliper Profile Test is a psychological test which shows a participant’s score on 18 common personality traits such as aggressiveness, empathy and risk-taking. In his study, Larry Richard identified five common personality traits which differentiated lawyers from the general public: Lawyers were more sceptical and had a higher sense of urgency than the general public. Furthermore, they were less sociable, less resilient and more autonomous than the general public. This independent, somewhat mistrustful, and solitary streak makes lawyers akin to cats. The idea that this cat-like characteristic makes it difficult to persuade lawyers to follow leadership direction is the essence of the saying “managing lawyers is like herding cats” and has been the subject of many a management article on the challenges of managing law firms.
These character traits do not mean that lawyers are “bad” people (and certainly not octopuses). Each personality trait has its advantages and disadvantages. For example, a sense of urgency or inner drive is crucial to overcoming obstacles and “getting the deal done”. It is a trait which one naturally associates with highly successful people. However, it can also manifest itself as impatience or result in stress when the situation does not turn out as planned, often making law firms a “high-stress” working environment. The need to drive things forward also contributes to the chronic “long-hours” culture of law firms in which our own self-worth becomes tied up in how busy we are (see Ziercke and Hartung Gender Diversity in Kanzleien: Kommt da noch was? and Fix the Firm or Fix the Woman? - How the demise of the superhero myth would benefit both law firms and their clients). Coupled with low resilience levels, this trait contributes to a vicious circle in which lawyers work extremely hard, driven by the fear that their work is still not sufficient and will be criticised.
Scepticism is recognised as a quintessential lawyer-characteristic which drives us to question everything and leave no stone unturned. Lawyers never trust their opponents, and even not their clients. A good dose of scepticism stops us becoming complacent, keeps us on our toes and is essential for balanced decision making. On the other hand, scepticism can also mean that we tend to be suspicious of others. In a team environment, being suspicious of others can destroy trust – but trust is a crucial element in a high-stress environment and the premise of the partnership structure. The fact that lawyers are fiercely independent and less sociable than others, well that does make them sound very much like cats…insecure, over-achieving, mistrustful cats. So, is there any hope for us?
Over the last few years, the Bucerius Center on the Legal Profession has worked closely with young lawyers to understand what they expect from life in the profession and how they are adapting to working life. Students on our Law Firms of Tomorrow course (part of the Bucerius Center on the Legal Profession Certificate in Management and Leadership) are asked what they would do if they were managing partner: How they would attract and retain Tomorrow’s Lawyers, and what their perfect law firm would look like. We have learned that Tomorrow’s Lawyers want to work in a collaborative environment and dislike intense competition between partners. They want to see more interaction between colleagues, relationship building and social events (see What Tomorrow’s Lawyers Want: What Law Firms Would Look Like if Generation Y were in Charge and Confused by Millennials? Three things that law firms need to know about Millennials by Hartung and Ziercke). These observations led us to question whether Tomorrow’s Lawyers were really as cat-like as their predecessors. So, we asked students from Bucerius Law School, International Exchange students, Bucerius Alumni, and Legal Tribune Online (LTO) readers to take part in our “Herding Cats” survey.
A full Caliper Profile test was not possible under the circumstances (if you are interested in carrying out a Caliper Profile Assessment you can find out more here), so instead we asked participants if they could identify themselves with the Caliper Profile personality traits, such as risk-taking and empathy. It is not our aim to “disprove” the original study, merely to gain an impression of whether lawyers today are different from their predecessors from the 1990s. Furthermore, by asking participants which traits they could identify themselves with, we are aware that we have introduced an element of “aspiration” in that we tend to choose characteristics which we aspire to, rather than characteristics which necessarily reflect who we are. However, together with our earlier studies, the 800-plus responses to our survey have provided us with some fascinating insights into Tomorrow’s Lawyers. When we talk about “Tomorrow’s Lawyers” we are referring to “Generation Y” lawyers, that is, students and lawyers aged between 18 and 39. As some of our respondents belonged to older generations of lawyers, we were also able to compare lawyers from Generation Y (the “under 40s”) with Generation X and Baby Boomers (the “over 40s”).
Tomorrow’s lawyers have “grit”
Lawyers from the original study had a strong sense of urgency, or inner-drive, but low levels of resilience. Resilience is our ability to handle rejection, accept criticism, bounce back and try harder. Driven by the desire to achieve perfection, lawyers tend to be somewhat sensitive to criticism and react badly when faced with “negative” feedback. According to Laura Empson’s recent study (Leading Professionals, OUP 2017), some professional service firms are explicit in their policy of recruiting “insecure over-achievers”. They do so, knowing that driven by the fear of being told their work is not 100% perfect, lawyers will perform at 110% in order to avoid any form of criticism. This leads to an unhealthy work-culture which can peak in extreme anxiety and even depression, as recent events in both the UK and the US have shown (see Jordan Furlong’s recent article in Slaw for a summary). Generation Y are widely regarded as being particularly vulnerable to mental health issues (an effect of so-called “helicopter parenting”) and some research reports (see for example Psychology Today) tell of declining resilience amongst students. But what about Tomorrow’s Lawyers?
Whilst resilience did not feature in Tomorrow’s Lawyers’ top-five characteristics, overall resilience levels were still substantially higher than those of the lawyers in the original study, with our over 40s being the most resilient group. Furthermore, Tomorrow’s Lawyers have even greater inner-drive than before. This combination of inner-drive and resilience means they should have what the Harvard Business Review describe as “grit”: High-achievers with extraordinary stamina who can accomplish challenging goals without succumbing to stress.
Tomorrow’s Lawyers are more collaborative
Tomorrow’s Lawyers are less sceptical, less autonomous and significantly more sociable than lawyers in the original study. Of course, this sociable trait fits with our expectations of the stereotypical “Generation Yer”: The generation of social media “over-sharers”. However, looking at the results across the age groups, it is interesting to note that lawyers of all ages were just as sociable as each other.
In our initial report in the LTO (Are lawyers really like cats?) we considered that the low levels of scepticism amongst Tomorrow’s Lawyers was due to them being at the beginning of their careers, and so less jaded and tired of the working world than the senior lawyers in the original study. However, our current results show that whilst overall our respondents were significantly less sceptical than in the original study, levels of scepticism amongst the under 30s and the over 40s were the same. Instead the 30-39-year-old cohort was slightly more sceptical than the others – perhaps a reflection of the fact that this cohort is most likely currently seeking to establish its position in the partnership. Thus overall, the drop in the level of scepticism should lead to a more trusting, collaborative working environment in law firms.
The lack of autonomy should mean that Tomorrow’s Lawyers are easier to manage than their predecessors, being more accepting of external structures and happy to work in an organisation in which direction is set. Interestingly our over 40s were significantly more autonomous than the younger cohorts: An indication that perhaps the older we become, the more independent and less accepting of organisational constraints we become.
The perfect lawyer…
Whilst we set out to compare the cat-like personality traits of scepticism, resilience, autonomy, sociability and urgency, we discovered that the only characteristic from the original study which featured in our respondent’s top five characteristics was a sense of urgency. Instead, the characteristics which resonated most closely with our respondents were attention to detail, the ability to use abstract reasoning, an ability to accurately sense the feelings of others and self-discipline. These characteristics were similar across all generations with the over 40s also identifying themselves with idea-orientation and assertiveness and the under 40s identifying themselves with self-discipline and willingness to help and provide service. The characteristics which all respondents least associated themselves with included aggression and ego-drive (a need to prove yourself right).
Furthermore, there were subtle differences in the relative importance of each trait between the generations and between cohorts. The greatest deviations were in autonomy, idea generation, assertiveness and abstract thinking, each of which was stronger in the over 40s than in the under 40s. By comparison, the under 40s were more cautious than the over 40s. We made an interesting observation when it came to deviations between local Bucerius students and international Bucerius students. The local students had significantly more inner-drive than their international colleagues, who were more sociable and risk-taking. This may well reflect the fact that you need to be prepared to take on a certain amount of risk to sign up for a semester of study on the other side of the world!
Are women more cat-like than men?
Our research would not be complete without a word about gender. The study offered us a unique opportunity to compare the personality traits of men and women. Looking first at the herding cats’ characteristics, the women in our study had more inner-drive but were marginally less resilient and markedly less autonomous than the men. This means they are more sensitive to criticism and more dependent on organisational structures than men, something which would give support to the stereotypical assertion that women are not good at putting themselves forward. Whereas men also rated themselves as “accommodating” (being willing to help and provide service), women had more empathy than men. Men identified themselves more with abstract thinking than women but were also more aggressive and had more ego-drive than women – again, supporting the usual stereotypes. Across our international and national student cohorts, an interesting discovery was that women on the international program were more disciplined and had a greater sense of urgency than their male colleagues. For our local Bucerius students, the male students were more sceptical and had more ego-drive than the women, which would make for some interesting class discussions!
Less cat-like, more human
We do not doubt that managing lawyers remains a Herculean task. With their focus on collaboration, flexible working and broader career paths, Tomorrow’s Lawyers are likely to bring more, rather than less, factors into the equation. Although the original Herding Cats study was based on actual Caliper Profile tests, and this version is based on a resonance with named personality traits, the fact that respondents clearly identified with the characteristics of diligence, sociability, grittiness, empathy, and open-mindedness shows that perhaps Tomorrow’s Lawyers (if not all lawyers) are more human than we think.
This article first appeared in Legal Business World on 2nd March 2019.