I have been fortunate to have had a 20+ year, multidisciplinary career (including the practice of law) and to have worked with people from many sectors. In working with people outside of law, I have frequently been asked: “What are lawyers…like?” Once, I was asked this specific question in a class of new business students I was teaching. My initial response—thinking about the exceedingly diverse range of lawyers I had worked with—was “Well… lawyers are like… people.”
And lawyers—despite their valuable knowledge and skills—are, first and foremost, people. As people, lawyers are not immune to human conditions and biases.
While they share this fact with the general population, there are some realities that set many lawyers apart. They have, for example, endured a specific kind of rigorous education and face other pressures that are not common to other fields. This may make lawyers more susceptible to specific issues and challenges.
12 impediments lawyers face
In an earlier post, we looked at why you don’t know what you don’t know and the phenomenon of “illusory superiority” (a cognitive bias whereby individuals overestimate their own qualities and abilities, as compared to those of others). Illusory superiority is not the only barrier lawyers face: myriad conditions and cognitive biases impede self-assessment and self-development. In his excellent 2017 book “Soft Skills for the Effective Lawyer,” Randall Kiser outlines 12 such impediments (Kiser, 2017, p. 46).
- Emotional numbing. Effective performers exhibit emotional awareness. A primary goal of traditional law school education is to train students “how to think like a lawyer”—aka how to apply rational, analytical processes to what are frequently messy and emotional cases. As Kiser notes, “[l]aw schools inject steroids” into the concept “emotions must be kept out of the workplace.” This can lead some to suppress emotions, rather than learning to manage them.
- High moral identity. Research conducted by psychologist Sonya Sachdeva, Rumen Illiev, and Douglas Medin suggests that affirming a moral identity leads people to feel licensed to act immorally. People who self-define as moral actors may be more likely to act immorally; those who are credentialed as nonprejudiced may be more likely to act with prejudice.
- Static self-illusion. The belief in a unified, constant self fails to capture the complex and dynamic reality of people. If we define ourselves in a certain way (e.g. as a certain type of person or expert), we may not avail ourselves of valuable development opportunities.
- Omniscience. Lawyers are rewarded for quick answers and a sense of “all-knowingness.” Those who start to believe their own hype may have their development curtailed.
- Stress and anxiety. While a moderate amount of stress can have positive effects, chronic stress can lead to permanent brain damage. Anxiety can impair professional performance. These conditions can hinder self-development.
- Aggressiveness. Some lawyers cultivate an aura of aggression to impress clients or colleagues. Aggressiveness can distract from other beneficial pursuits, such as problem-solving, and can act as a barrier to valuable feedback from others.
- Extrinsic motivation. Those who are intrinsically motivated are driven by personal fulfillment; those who are extrinsically motivated are driven by a tangible reward (such as money). Motivation (which is context-dependent) can also affect self-development.
- Alcohol and drug impairment. Alcohol and drug use are associated with numerous negative effects, including several that can adversely affect self-development. These include difficulty in processing language, memory loss, and impaired thinking.
- Imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is characterized by the belief that one lacks the skills for a job or assignment and a worry that this shortcoming will soon be discovered. Someone who feels like an imposter may thwart their own development, such as by turning down opportunities that could lead to development or disregarding positive feedback about their performance.
- Narcissism. Narcissists—grandiose, lacking in empathy, and craving admiration—tend to demonstrate intolerance to critical feedback. This, among others, can be detrimental to self-development.
- Procrastination. Procrastination—another potential barrier to self-development—refers to the avoidance of doing a task or activity that needs to be done. While procrastinators may contend that they perform better under pressure, research shows this not to be the case.
- Status, affluence, and power. An unlucky by-product of success is overconfidence, which can make people reluctant to seek and learn from the opinions of others.
While these conditions affect the population generally, some are disproportionately prevalent among lawyers. But aren’t lawyers trained in systematic, evidence-based, objective, and detached evaluation of facts? Does this not compensate for these other factors? Research shows that it does not.
As Kiser (p. 45) astutely points out, “[l]aw appears to be one of the few domains that not only expects but rewards overconfidence and egocentric biases.” This makes it extraordinarily challenging for lawyers to free themselves from the grip of illusory superiority and other impediments.
3 tips to addressing these challenges
There are resources out there that can help. Here are three tips for lawyers:
- Don’t mess around with any significant psychological issue; seek out a qualified, caring professional. Not sure where to start? Consider your family doctor, local lawyers’ assistance society, or other employee and family assistance program. After years of recommending such services to others, I personally accessed support through our local lawyers’ assistance society to help deal with stresses in my own work. It is one of the best decisions I have ever made. (Full disclosure: I was also honoured to serve as interim Executive Director for that lawyer’ assistance society during their recent executive leadership transition—making me a lifelong proponent of such services.)
- Look for resources specific to some of these challenges. There are also many accessible books, videos, podcasts, and blogs that offer tips in some of these areas (such as dealing with stress or procrastination). I am also a proponent of executive coaching. I recommend finding a qualified, client-centric coach whose approach resonates for you.
- While you are sorting out underlying issues and dealing with bigger-picture challenges (which are not addressed overnight), take steps to mitigate the adverse effects on your professional development. Use independent assessment to inform your continuing professional development decisions in areas like communication, leadership, emotional intelligence, and intercultural competence. While assessment data cannot begin to resolve all the challenges lawyers face, they can offer objective data to help lawyers become more aware of their development opportunities and can help them make better decisions about their continuing professional development.
For more information on independent assessments for those working in the legal field, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kiser, R. (2017). Soft skills for the effective lawyer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sachdeva, S., Illiev, R. & Medin, D. L. (2009). Sinning saints and saintly sinners: The paradox of moral self-regulation. Psychological Science, 20(4), 523-528. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40575054.