Even if the incumbents react adroitly and nimbly, as viewed with the benefit of hindsight, they are almost invariably plunged into a highly stressful period of experimentation, hastily arranging an array of responses, which require those who lived through the experience to try first this and then that: Experimenting, in other words.

Earlier in this series I discussed what A. O. Lafley achieved at Procter & Gamble, with innovation in a seemingly mature market, but I didn’t tell you what he said about failure. Essentially, it was: (a) fail fast; and (b) don’t fail the same way twice. Doing this gracefully and effectively requires a personality characteristic that the psychological and organizational dynamics literature usually refers to as “resilience.”

Indeed, resilience is so important to particular companies that assessment tools have been developed specifically to measure for it in individuals. One of the originals, the so-called “Caliper” tool, was developed by the Encyclopedia Britannica to help the company select effective door to door salesmen of its big, heavy shelf of books. Now, few lines of work are ever going to involve as much rejection (call it “failure”) as door to door sales of expensive and complex products, so you can see why Encyclopedia Britannica found this assessment tool critical to its success. But the Caliper tool also scores people on 17 other personality traits, and by this point has been administered to over 2-million college graduates in the US, as well as to some 3,000 lawyers. (What follows is courtesy of work Dr. Larry Richards, one of the leading authorities on lawyer personality types, has done.)

On six of the 18 traits, lawyers in general score one or more standard deviations above or below the population norm. No other professional group produces a profile that is systematically such an outlier from the norm.

Here are the six traits in question:


Trait US Population Average Lawyers Average
Skepticism 50th %-ile (by definition) 90th %-ile
Autonomy 50% 89%
Abstract reasoning 50% 78%
Urgency 50% 71%
Resilience 50% 30%
Sociability 50% 7% (12% if you include rainmakers)


Let’s clarify something right away: If you’re in the market for a lawyer, these are probably just the traits you’re looking for. Let’s say a powerful government agency has opened a high-profile investigation into your company, and you need a law firm. Here’s how these traits can work to your advantage:

  • Skepticism: Do you want an advocate who is tempted to take what the agency says at face value, or someone who will challenge them at every turn?
  • Autonomy: Do you want an advocate who can figure out what to do on their own, without micro guidance?
  • Abstract reasoning and urgency: Need I say more?
  • Urgency: This means our overwhelming need to get things done now. Great, for clients.
  • Sociability: First, understand that “sociability” refers to ordinary human relations in the everyday sense, such as a facility with small talk, readiness to introduce oneself to strangers in a checkout line or at a cocktail party, etc.; it has nothing to do with proper manners and courtesy. Think of it as introversion vs. extraversion. Do you care about it on this engagement? Is someone low on it any kind of problem? Didn’t think so.
  • Resilience: Ah, the critical factor in rebounding from being rejected.  Think of it as an indicator of sturdiness in the face of setbacks or criticism, as well as the ability to bounce back speedily.  You might think that’s not an issue since your chosen lawyers haven’t been rejected; they’ve been selected. So low resilience isn’t germane, is it? Not so fast. Low resilience also makes one more likely to respond poorly to stresses caused by change, uncertainty, and challenges.  So you actually want an advocate with high resilience (good luck finding one) because when an adversary, a judge, or you-the-client criticize their thinking, challenge the bill, or even reject them for other unrelated work, the more defensive, even unhinged, they may become.

Now switch hats. You’re the managing partner of a firm staring down the throat of the need for fundamental change. How do these lawyerly traits work in this context?

  • Skepticism: Ready to be challenged at every turn, over matters great and small? Then this is the team you want to lead. True story: The managing partner of an AmLaw 50 mentioned at a partners’ lunch that they were going to change the font size of the firm’s letterhead by 2 points. 90 minutes later they were still debating the font size change. I actually don’t know whether the change went through or not. Now expand that to a decision that actually has consequences, and have fun.
  • Autonomy: These are people who really do not want to be led.
  • Abstract reasoning: You can find holes in anything. Lawyers will.
  • Urgency: When you’re talking about the changes that have to be made, lawyers will focus on everything that’s wrong with it. When they go back to work, they’ll forget about it entirely because they’ll be preoccupied with the issues of the moment. Not the best way to build long-term consensus. Or, if partners will talk about the firm’s long-run strategy, they’ll tell you they have an hour; then you can come back in five years when we see how it turned out.
  • Sociability: Probably not a big deal either way in this context.
  • Resilience: Did we mention experimentation entails failure? And failure requires resilience?

All in all, it seems one could substitute “lawyer” for “pessimist” in Winston Churchill’s famous dictum, and it would make equal if not greater sense:

An optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty, a pessimist the difficulty in every opportunity.

Before you think we are presenting a counsel of despair, I submit that Churchill’s apothegm may hold the key to our salvation.

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