Leadership styles in the legal profession: A conversation with Dr. Larry Richard, founder of LawyerBrain
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Leadership styles in the legal profession: A conversation with Dr. Larry Richard, founder of LawyerBrain

Dr. Larry Richard, a leading expert on the psychology of lawyer behavior, shares what he thinks makes lawyers different, how they can best create relationships and environments for collaboration, and the biggest difference between a successful law firm partner and a successful general counsel.
February 20, 2024
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In this next episode of The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Victoria Reese speaks to Dr. Larry Richard, the leading expert on the psychology of lawyer behavior and the founder of LawyerBrain, a management consulting firm that exclusively serves the legal profession. Richard, who over his career has analyzed over 25,000 lawyers, shares what he thinks makes lawyers different and how they can best create relationships and environments for collaboration. He also discusses the biggest difference between a successful law firm partner and a successful general counsel and, for those in legal who may want to move into different roles—for example, general counsel or chief legal officer roles—what specific leadership skill sets and capabilities they should focus on developing the most. Finally, he offers advice to organizational leaders for how to best engage and communicate to ensure they are getting the best outcome out of the lawyers they work with.

Below is a full transcript of the episode, which has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Welcome to The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. Heidrick is the premier global provider of senior-level executive search and leadership consulting services. Diversity and inclusion, leading through tumultuous times, and building thriving teams and organizations are among the core issues we talk with leaders about every day, including in our podcasts. Thank you for joining the conversation.

Victoria Reese: Hi, I’m Victoria Reese, a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ New York Office and global managing partner of the Corporate Officers Practice. Today I’m excited to be joined by Dr. Larry Richard, founder of LawyerBrain, a management consulting firm that exclusively serves the legal profession. Dr. Richard is recognized as the leading expert on the psychology of lawyer behavior. Widely known as the expert on lawyer personality, he’s gathered personality data on thousands of lawyers.

Dr. Richard, thank you for joining us today. 

Dr. Larry Richard: Thanks, Victoria. My pleasure. 

Victoria Reese: You’ve analyzed over 25,000 lawyers and have told me the story is . . . lawyers are different. Based on your research and experience, can you share why? 

Dr. Larry Richard: Absolutely. So let’s clarify first. When you say analyze, our audience may picture lawyers lying on couches all over the world, and that’s not the kind of analysis we’re talking about.

We’re talking about research that I’ve done since the early ’90s on the personality traits of lawyers. That actually started because I was fascinated with why I personally didn’t fit into the legal profession, even though I come from a long line of lawyers. So it led me to earning a PhD in psychology.

During my schooling, I studied the personality traits of lawyers, and what has stood out to me consistently from that early research right through to today is that there are certain personality traits that characterize lawyers that are very, very atypical compared to the public and are very strong, relatively speaking.

And the most singular of those is an extraordinarily high level of skepticism. And skepticism is—just to give you an idea in terms of numbers—skepticism is a personality trait that’s distributed on a typical bell curve scale with people scoring between zero and 100%. The average for the public is right in the middle, 50%, but the average skepticism for lawyers is 90%.

And the reason it’s so high is that lawyers have to question assertions. They have to question data. They have to question motives—all for a good reason, to protect their clients. And that would be fine if we hadn’t . . . We’ve shifted the role of lawyers from just practicing law to lots of other roles that they play today, like leading and managing and supervising and building teams and collaborating.

So the very skepticism that helps them in their role as lawyer becomes potentially an impediment in these other more relationship-based roles. 

Victoria Reese: That is interesting, and I love the decision process you went through to establish your journey to this conversation today. Between 2015 and 2021, 1,189 legal senior executives took a proprietary Heidrick & Struggles survey, the combined results of which highlight how much each leader leans toward each of the eight styles of leadership.

The biggest shift we have seen is an increase in the collaborator leadership style. Which is defined as being empathetic, team-building, talent-spotting, and coaching-oriented. Collaboration is absolutely key in organizations, but you mentioned there can be lower trust and higher skepticism in lawyers.

What are ways lawyers can be aware of these personality qualities and be authentic to themselves, but also create relationships and environments for collaboration? 

Dr. Larry Richard: So you’re absolutely right. High skepticism—and really low trust is the opposite. Skepticism and trust are kind of two ends of a sliding scale. And lawyers being very high in skepticism are not very good at that collaborator leadership style. In fact, one of the components you mentioned, being empathetic—empathy has been studied, and the research shows that around the world, not just in lawyers, but in people in general, there’s been a 10-year steady decline in empathy around the world.

And my data on lawyers show exactly that as well. So the declining empathy of lawyers mirrors the declining empathy in other people around the world. There are a lot of possible reasons for that, but there’s no mistaking the trend that it’s on the decline. And yet, you’re absolutely right about the need for collaboration as a leadership style.

In fact, our colleague Heidi Gardner has documented very ably the reasons for this need for collaboration. She’s just recently come out with her second book, Smarter Collaboration. And she talks about the VUCA environment that we’re all operating in and the increased depth of specialization which makes it essential that we, you know, join together people with lots of different deep expertise in order to get the work done today.

So that’s really no different in a law firm. Law firms—or the legal profession is struggling with the same issue that specialization has increased: The narrow expertise that’s much deeper but not broader is true for lawyers as it is for professionals in many other fields. And yet the profession hasn’t really shifted to attract people into the profession that have that collaborator style naturally.

So what can do? Well, one thing, certainly awareness is an essential element. And I try to do my job as an individual to increase the awareness that lawyers have about the importance of empathy—especially a type of empathy called cognitive empathy, which is about taking the perspective of other people. The other things that lawyers could do: getting personality feedback.

It’s very accessible these days. There are high-quality personality tools like the ones that I’ve used over the years and others that are in the market. It doesn’t almost matter. I mean, getting personality feedback from whatever source is better than getting none, and it can be so helpful to have an understanding of: “How do I kind of roll out myself in the world? And how do other people do that? How is that different from my style?” And that gives me the capacity to adapt. 

And then the last thing I would mention is it really helps to be able to, when I say adapt, I’m talking about at least wearing two different hats. So there’s the skeptical hat we wear when we’re practicing law, and then there’s the trusting hat we wear in these other roles.

But to adopt that second hat is going to be uncomfortable, and so the one additional skill—and I really think it is a skill—is learning to tolerate discomfort. And one of my favorite books, you’re going to hate the title, but it’s a favorite book. Nonetheless, it’s called Embrace the Suck. And it was written by a Navy SEAL whose basic message is the people who don’t wash out, the people who make it through all the way to get their certification as Navy SEALs are people who basically have a mindset about all the horrible things that Navy SEAL training puts you through that’s something like this: “This sucks. I’m going to endure it anyway because I have a higher mission.” And that toleration of discomfort is really the best tool that we have for learning and adapting. 

Victoria Reese: So much there, and I’m aware of that book and radical acceptance. 

Dr. Larry Richard: Same idea, exactly. 

Victoria Reese: So I, of course, have some ideas about this next question, but want your response and your reaction.

What do you see is the biggest difference between a successful law firm partner and a successful general counsel? I, of course, get calls all the time from the law firm partner who says to me, “Victoria, I’m ready to make the move. I think I’d make a great general counsel.” What traits do they share, and what are the differentiators?

Dr. Larry Richard: Well, I’m glad you asked that, because I’ve had those same conversations with partners. 

Victoria Reese: I’m sure you have. I’m sure you have. 

Dr. Larry Richard: And they do think very highly of themselves, and it’s true that if you’re in a leadership role in a law firm, it’s just the most natural thing to think that that would translate immediately into a general counsel role, but they’re different leadership roles.

They have some things in common. They’re both leading, but let’s start with the fact that in a law firm, at least in most law firms, except for the very rare lockstep ones that still remain, rainmaking is front and center, one of the most important expectations of partners. And that our rainmaking mindset is very time-driven. We think in six-tenths-of-an-hour increments. And there’s actually a scientific study that came out a number of years ago showing that people who make their living using a time-based billing approach actually experience time subjectively different from other people. And that really makes a difference.

If you land in a law department and you have that hourly billing mindset. It’s going to get under the skin of a lot of people. Now, I have to say, 20 years ago, law departments primarily promoted from within. And today, while there’s still a lot of that going on, there’s much more, at least what I see, is much more openness to bringing in lawyers from law firms.

And they bring with them the billable-hour mindset, which, you know, is a mixed blessing. It has some advantages, but it also has some disadvantages, and the disadvantages are much more pronounced if the lawyer, him or herself, is not aware of that mindset that they’re bringing in. It’s easy for that to become very invisible.

So, becoming aware of that mindset and maybe adapting to a less time-driven mindset is the first thing. The second thing is, I think, leaders in both settings mentor younger people. But in a law firm, the mentoring is about how can I help these raw recruits who are not quite fully formed as competent lawyers? How can I help them master the competencies of practicing law? Whereas in a law department, that’s not the GC’s role. The GC may be nurturing younger people, but more to become leaders. How can I help them develop so that I can have a chief legal officer helping me out with a particular line of work? Or something like that.

So, the mentoring goal and the role, the way that we mentor is different in the two organizations. I think what they have in common is a shared high IQ and a shared love of analyzing and solving interesting problems. Those are skills that are unique to lawyers or maybe not unique but common to lawyers and I think they work in both settings.

But you asked about somebody who’s successful in the role, and I think a successful general counsel, the biggest skill that they have is something that seems very, very hard for partners in a law firm to do well, and that is delegation. You can’t survive as a GC today if you can’t delegate effectively.

So I’ll stop at that. I’m sure there are more, but those are the off-the-top differences that I see. 

Victoria Reese: And I think this next question will expand upon that. For those in legal who may want to move into different roles, for example, general counsel, chief legal officer roles, get to the top, what specific leadership skill sets and capabilities should they focus on developing the most? What skill sets and capabilities do they typically possess? That should be tapped into more in the companies they’re at. 

Dr. Larry Richard: So the ones I just mentioned, certainly the analytical skills and the love of problem-solving. Of course, it’s important not to get carried away with that or we end up with too much of a good thing and we get to analysis paralysis.

The other thing is there is. I think a great amount of room for people who want to move up in a law department to adopt a devil’s advocate mindset or even to get an actual devil’s advocate. In other words, I find that decision-making is much crisper and much better if you have somebody that can actually serve that role of challenging you.

Now, this is harder than it seems because the people who rise into leadership roles are often people that are very confident, very strong-willed, very unique, standout individuals, and those very qualities that make them competent as leaders also make them somewhat intimidating to a lot of people. And when you’re intimidating, it’s hard to get somebody to volunteer to be your devil’s advocate and push back against you.

But it’s a really important thing to get a trusted colleague to serve in that devil’s advocate role because it can really test your ideas, test your decision-making. And help you refine those decisions so that they become better. And it’s that judgment, I would say, above all else, the refinement, the development of judgment, which comes from that cauldron of somebody testing your ideas, that is so important to rise in a law department.

Victoria Reese: As a leader, if you have a lawyer on your team or work with lawyers as teammates, any advice for how to best engage and communicate to ensure you’re getting the best outcome out of those lawyers? And then following up, what advice would you give them on how to inspire and create meaning among their teams?

Dr. Larry Richard: So Victoria, I think to answer that question about how to bring out the best in people, it would be helpful to your listeners if I do a little bit deeper dive into what I mentioned at the outset, which is that lawyers have these seven atypical or outlier personality traits, because we’re always using those traits and they help us in the practice of law.

But when the goal is bringing out the best in other people, the very same traits that help us be good lawyers can challenge our ability to bring out the best in others. So I’ve already mentioned skepticism. The next trait is really high autonomy in the sense that we don’t want people telling us what to do.

And by the way, this refers back to the earlier comment when you asked me about a partner in a law firm that wants to enter a legal department. This is another thing that that lawyer should be aware of. If you have high autonomy needs, it works in a law firm. Or it has up until now. But in a law department, that high autonomy isn’t as valued, and in fact, my research shows that there is a slightly lower average autonomy score for law department lawyers than for law firm lawyers.

Next is high urgency. Urgency is the friend of the lawyer in private practice. Lawyers are always responding to large, urgent problems that their clients bring to them, so it stands to reason that the personality traits of lawyers in law firms would be more urgent, more impatient than the average person.

I’m not so sure that urgency unbridled would be the best thing in a law department. So that might have to be adjusted. Certainly, if you’re trying to bring out the best in other people, finishing other people’s sentences, which we high urgency people do a lot, is not going to win you any converts. 

The next thing is high abstract reasoning. That’s the analytical skills I’ve mentioned. We’ve already talked about that. The next atypical trait, number five, is low sociability. That means lawyers are very, very uncomfortable with intimacy and vulnerability. We’d rather have arm’s length analytical cerebral conversations and not emotionally vulnerable ones. And yet, being vulnerable is the best way to build connection. And connection is the best way that I know to bring out the best in other people, to build a trusting relationship with them. So there’s a little bit of a tension there. 

The next one is a very important trait, so important that the American Bar Association asked me to write a book about it. It’s called Resilience. And I’ve just finished the book last month, and I’m working on some final edits. So resilience as a personality trait is a little bit different from the kind of resilience we talk about when someone recovers from a natural disaster or from COVID or that sort of thing. Resilience as a personality trait is an interpersonal dynamic. It’s basically how we react when we are criticized or rejected. So, if someone forgets my birthday, if someone criticizes my work, if a client promises to call and then they don’t call, how do I react? High-resilience people just take those things in stride and they don’t get bent out of shape, but low-resilience people are very defensive and hurt, easily wounded, and often find themselves talking, thinking, acting defensively. 

So resilience is pervasive in the legal profession. My data consistently have shown over 30 straight years that 9 out of 10 lawyers are low in this trait compared to only half of the public. That’s just stunning. And one of the reasons we’re so low in resilience is that high skepticism is one of the factors that drives our resilience down. I don’t think we have time today to unpack that, you know, why that’s so, but I’ll try to do that in the book. 

So low resilience is important here because if you are low in resilience and you’re in a leadership role, leaders get criticized more than other people. And a low-resilience or defensive response to that criticism will upend your ability to get followership. Number two, when you are trying to bring out the best in other people, it’s very easy for a low-resilience person, who’s trying to bring out the best in others, to get caught up in his or her own narrative and lose sight of the goal of bringing out the best in other people. In other words, low resilience makes us a little bit over-focused on our own needs that are unmet, and it doesn’t give us the bandwidth to focus on bringing out the best in other people. 

So low resilience is really important. And the good news is it is a learnable trait. Most traits are not that learnable. They have kind of a rubber band effect where they bounce back as soon as you stop paying attention to them. But when you raise your resilience, you actually can set it and forget it. It doesn’t have that rubber band effect. So very important trait. 

And then the last trait is the newest trait, and that’s the one I mentioned earlier, that lawyers are low in empathy. And empathy is perhaps the single most important trait for bringing out the best in other people. You have to understand how does this particular individual operate? What are their criteria? What helps them feel like their best is up front? Not what I want for my best, but what does this person want? And by thinking empathically, we can do a much better job of mentoring, supervising, leading other people.

And then you also asked about inspiring and creating meaning. There’s ample research, including what’s called the self-determination research, the three main factors that motivate people. Or let’s put it this way, there are three factors and then there’s a wraparound to all three factors. Autonomy, belonging, and competence are the three main factors that produce motivation, and wrapped around those three is this fourth factor of meaning.

Human beings are meaning-making machines. We need meaning to feel committed to the organizations we work in, and leaders have a responsibility and have the capacity to constantly be helping the people that are their constituents to figure out, how is the assignment you’ve given me meaningful? What’s the end result of my efforts? Can you show me a link between what you’ve asked me to do and the end result? So, I feel like what I just did mattered, and that’s so important to do it. 

The advice I would give to any lawyer in a management, leadership, or supervisory role is always, always, always take into account meaning from the standpoint of the people that you are supervising. What are you doing to help them understand the way that what you’ve asked them to do in the end will matter? So that would be my closing thought about that particular question. 

Victoria Reese: Great closing thought. Larry, thank you for making the time to speak with us today. 

Dr. Larry Richard: My pleasure, Victoria. Thanks for inviting me.

Thanks for listening to The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. To make sure you don’t miss more future-shaping ideas and conversations, please subscribe to our channel on the podcast app. And if you’re listening via LinkedIn, Twitter, or YouTube, why not share this with your connections? Until next time.

About the interviewer

Victoria Reese (vreese@heidrick.com) is the global managing partner of the Corporate Officers Practice; she is based in Heidrick & Struggles’ New York office.

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