An Audience of Lawyers

A guide to managing change within the cynical, competitive and critical

“Not all lawyers are annoying. Some are dead.” — Robert Silverberg

There is a reason there are so many dead lawyer jokes (“What do you call 10,000 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? A good start”) — we deserve it. We are cynical, pessimistic and skeptical. We are trained from the beginning to argue and debate most everything. Our job is to pick things apart — to look for everything that can go wrong or to deal with problems after they have occurred. It is what we do.

In a prior essay, one of the six change questions I posed was whether you knew your audience. So, if we are to consider change in the legal profession, let’s explore an audience of lawyers. By no means is this an exhaustive discussion of the varied attributes of lawyers. But, as we explore that scary universe, consider the following question:

Do our perceptions and attitudes dictate our reality?

Okay, I get it. This is a big, existential question — which sounds like it belongs in an introductory philosophy course for undergrads. At the same time, it is a question that matters, for any change champion seeking to drive transformation in their organizations — but particularly for those working with lawyers. I do not believe that lawyers are impervious to change. As difficult as it may be to believe, I think they can find better ways to deliver legal services.

High skepticism and low resilience: a killer combination

Dr. Larry Richard, a lawyer-turned-psychologist, has published extensively on the personality types of lawyers. While based on admittedly subjective methods and limited to those of us in the U.S., his research yields some insights that are thought provoking. Relying on the widely utilized Caliper assessment tool, which utilizes ten or so traits to build personality profiles, Richard reports the following:

  • Lawyers are highly skeptical — as a group, lawyers measure in the 93th percentile. This quality is described by Caliper as an “inclination to doubt or question others’ motives.”
  • They are also fiercely autonomous, scoring an average of 89th percentile in “preference for independently determining work methods.”
  • In contrast, lawyers averaged a score of 7th percentile in sociability (“the enjoyment of being around people and working with others”) and 30th percentile in resilience (“capacity to handle rejection and criticism.”). An even more astounding statistic is that 90% of all lawyers score in the bottom half in resilience.

At the risk of over-relying on anecdata, these numbers seem to confirm the prevailing view that lawyers are indeed different. These statistics tell us that lawyers will doubt and question new ideas, particularly those that require them to work closely with others or to otherwise cede their highly prized independence. This, of course, makes sense — it is part and parcel of our training and perceived role for our clients.

My experience from 35 years of being a lawyer and working with lawyers tells me that Richard has this one basically right. I think, though, that it only tells part of the story. Yes, we are trained to be cynical and to look for every possible flaw and problem. At the same time, lawyers tend to be bright, competitive, success-driven types. On the latter point, I have noticed an interesting meerkat phenomenon — when someone begins to have success, the others pop out of their holes to see what is going on and how it might apply to them. They may pop back into their hole quickly, but it gets their attention.

One can hardly capture the characteristics of an entire profession in four paragraphs, but I will note two other variables that work into the calculus.

  1. First, words matter to lawyers. We dissect them, we look for hidden meaning, we make fun of jargon (we learned the latter point the hard way in our own lean journey). How you talk about objectives and change, therefore, matters.
  2. Second, we adapt to the culture of the organization in which we exist and will defend that culture. Therefore, understanding the cultural levers — and the historical framework of that cultural system — in an organization is important if one is to adapt behavior in a change process.

So what do we do with this?

I suppose we could give up. That is certainly a choice. The story told by that choice, however, would be a bleak, depressing one; that of an industry that moved too fast and an entire profession left behind.

Let’s strive toward a different turn, where we choose to allow for the possibility of change for the better.

In order to do that, however, we have to account for the audience — the group of people we want to think differently in order to find different solution sets. I wish I had a complete answer for you. I don’t.

I don’t think there is a magic formula — something you put in the water and all of a sudden the AmLaw 100 firm or big legal department behaves like a start-up hell bent on changing the world. As a lawyer, that would freak me out anyway. Experience has taught me a few things that may have general applicability for anyone trying to get buy-in from lawyers to a different model (in addition to patience and Teflon-coated armor). In no particular order of importance, some of them are:

Start small and build from success

Take two traits: cynicism and competitiveness. Those traits matter. I am a fan of Jim Collins’ work and his belief in setting a BHAG (big, hairy, audacious goal) for an organization. When you are trying to drive change that requires a different set of behaviors by lawyers, however, I don’t think that works. Lawyers will be too cynical and big audacious goals are too easy to pick apart. Rather, small steps are more digestible and, in turn, more difficult to pick apart. While you need to be able to articulate how one step leads to the next, digestible bites are better.

Related to that point is that those small steps should result in some measurable success (otherwise you need to recalibrate). Celebrate that success. It will get attention. Perhaps most of the audience will chalk it off as inapplicable to their situation. You should assume that they will. Because of the competitive nature of lawyers, however, there will be some that will see the success and want to replicate or surpass it. Bring those people into the next set of steps or next circle of success. Over time — and this takes time — the organization will begin to build advocates for change. Trying to boil the ocean, however, almost never works.

Words and culture/history matter

Lawyers are trained to look at words and all of their meanings. When we first started down the Lean Six Sigma path, we brought in all of the jargon and acronyms that true practitioners of the craft love so dearly.

It was a fiasco. Getting the lawyers to adapt to a different language and set of terms that had no meaning in their world was simply too difficult. Instead, we had to take a step back and recalibrate the language to fit the lawyers. The underlying concepts are the same, but the way we talk about it and the words we use have been modified to fit the audience — not the other way around.

We also learned that to the extent we could connect the change effort to the history and culture of the Firm and our founders we could achieve greater resonance. Seems self-evident now but we learned that story telling and precedent matter.

For example, as we try to drive a deeper understanding of our clients’ businesses and achieve an outside-in mentality, we tell the story of the metal desks. The story is simple: when I started with the Firm, every lawyer sat behind a gun-metal gray desk. When Lee Shaw, one of our founders, was asked why, he simply responded that our clients sat behind metal desks and what worked for our clients worked for us.

Connecting change efforts to the history and culture of the organization and making it an extension rather than a radical change, to the extent possible, provides for greater credibility and simply makes more sense to lawyers.

And, no, we no longer sit behind gun-metal gray desks. Neither do our clients.

Write in pencil to avoid analysis paralysis

If we get caught up in large, existential questions, the lawyers will debate them to death. Rather, be willing to write in pencil. Be willing to recalibrate, experiment and adapt when the results are not what you anticipate. Not only is it somewhat stupid to try to be perfect right out of the gate, attempting to do so will trigger every analytical/cynical bone in the lawyers’ bodies to debate why that result is not achievable. Moreover, being willing to recalibrate will give more credibility to the effort and reduce the risk profile for the lawyers.

In his new book “How to Fly a Horse” Kevin Ashton, who first coined the term “Internet of Things” as a brand manager at P&G, gives us a new take on the famous story of the Wright brothers’ quest to achieve flight. The title is a reference to a quote by Wilbur about the difficulties of designing the first aircraft:

If I take a piece of paper, and after placing it parallel with the ground, quickly let it fall, it will not settle steadily down as a staid, sensible piece of paper out to do, but it insists on contravening every recognized rule of decorum, turning over and darting hither and thither in the most erratic manner, much after the style of an untrained horse. Yet this is the style of steed that men must learn to manage before flying can become an everyday sport. The bird has learned this art of equilibrium, and learned it so thoroughly that its skill is not apparent to our sight.

Ashton goes on to describe the Wright brothers’ experiments with kites and gliders, enumerating the numerous iterations between 1899 and 1902. Ashton suggests that it is a disservice to ignore the number of tiny steps, the long chain of failed experiments and progression of insights that led to that moment.

I agree. Written in the history of those kites and gliders is a case for sustained and well-grounded exploration. The Wright brothers did not design the first airplane sitting in a room pondering big questions about the nature of flight. They didn’t reach breakthrough insights by rehashing existing ideas with respect to the complicated measurements and calculations about aerodynamics (which, incidentally, turns out to have been materially wrong). Instead, they made their own investigations, making small adjustments — at each turn, they made a set of informed hypotheses, taking manageable risks to test each idea and gaining progressively greater insight. That same willingness to adapt applies equally in today’s legal environment.

As I said above, I wish I had a magic formula to give you. I don’t. I wish I could tell you that we have every one of our 750 lawyers acting and behaving in a different way. We don’t. However far we have to go, though, we have traveled even farther. What I have learned on that road is that changing lawyer behavior in a material way is possible. One of the key components is understanding and adapting to your audience.