​Pessimism, skepticism, and cold rationality: great for practicing law, but for life? Not so much

27 Jul 19

Excerpts from The Unique Psychological World of Lawyers:

Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the founder of the School of Positive Psychology, which focuses on the attributes that produce success and happiness, has identified optimism as critical for both. In his book, Authentic Happiness (Free Press, 2002), Dr. Seligman reviewed his research on whether any personality attributes were consistently correlated to success in any of 104 careers he studied. Interestingly enough, the only career he found consistent correlations for was lawyering. And the attribute? Pessimism. Pessimism was so highly correlated with success in lawyers that the higher the pessimism in law students, the higher their grades.

Dr. Seligman points out that while pessimism is evidently a positive attribute for the practice of law, it can have profound effects on the individuals high in that quality, affecting their resilience and personal and professional relationships, for example.

A personality assessment that has been in use for 40 years is the Caliper Personality Profile. Over a million professionals have been profiled using this tool. Lawyers show a distinct difference from other professionals in a number of attributes. For example, skepticism is a trait that ranges from being cynical, judgmental, questioning, argumentative and self-protective on the high end to accepting, trusting and giving the benefit of the doubt on the low end. The general population has an average score of 50 on skepticism, while among lawyers it is consistently the highest scoring trait, averaging 90. This trait can be very useful in the practice of law …. However, most people tend to use their strongest traits in every arena of their lives, so this high level of skepticism is also carried over into partnership meetings, team deliberations and committee work (as well as personal relationships) that may call for more trust and collaboration.

 While lawyers score well above the national average (115-130) in IQ, they score below the national average in emotional intelligence, as measured by the Mayer Salovey Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test. Their lowest sub-score in this four-part assessment is in the first branch—accurately perceiving their own and others emotions, while their highest subscore is the third branch, understanding emotions, a more cognitive ability. Unfortunately, this means that while lawyers are able to competently reason about emotions and their implications, the emotional data that they are analyzing day in and day out is likely to be incomplete or inaccurate—lawyers are likely to be misreading what they themselves or others are feeling. The result is that lawyers are more likely than non-lawyers to be caught off guard by a disgruntled client, an overwhelmed associate or an angry partner, or even by their own powerful reactions.