Yet More on the Lawyer Personality

I’m starting to feel like a college professor: “In my last lecture, we discussed . . .” Yeah, OK, so I did talk last time about where lawyers tended to fall in the 16 Myers-Briggs personality types. Whether or not you found yourself in one of the 6 dominant MBTI types for lawyers or not, you need to know what your personality strengths are when you’re looking for that shiny new alternative legal career or happier lawyer life.

Child playing with globe

What kind of world do you like working and playing in?

So today (I say, putting on my official college professor tweed jacket with elbow patches) we’re going to focus on the ends of the Myers-Briggs alphabet soup, the Extravert/Introvert and Judging/Perceiving preferences. Myers-Briggs people call these the attitudes or orientations; they are about how you prefer to interact with the world. They boil down to what kind of world you like to live in, and what structure you want it to have. Kind of fundamental questions for everyone, including unhappy lawyers.

Extraverts and Introverts—Are You an Innie or an Outie?

The Extravert/Introvert preference creates confusion for many. That’s because we equate introversion with shyness or reclusiveness—and that isn’t what it is in the Myers-Briggs world. The extravert/introvert scale speaks to your energy, and where you get it from. It’s about which world you prefer, the outer or the inner world.

Extraverts process out loud, which means talking to people, or I suppose in a pinch to themselves or a recorder. (Work efficiency tip there, extraverts.) Extraverts are energized by talking with people and experiencing life through doing. One of the explanatory sheets I got when I took the MBTI says that extraverts “need to experience the world in order to understand it and thus tend to like action and variety.”

Introverts, on the other hand, get their energy by being inside their heads. They process life there. That does not mean they can’t really enjoy talking to people—indeed, they may get some great ideas that way and really dig the conversation. But then they need some quiet time to mull over those wonderful shiny ideas without any blaring voices except the ones in their heads. My little sheet says that introverts “like to understand the world before experiencing it, and so need time to reflect before acting.”

That “understand the world before experiencing it” bit sums up many lawyers pretty nicely, don’t you think? And that’s not just my warped perception. In his 1993 ABA Journal article, Dr. Larry Richard found that only 43% of lawyers are extraverts, as compared to the 75% of extraverts in the general population. (Note: There are some studies that assert the extravert percentage in the general population is closer to 50%, but there’s a fair amount of debate about those studies. For now, I’m going with 75%.)

In the general population, men and women show extraversion at the same rate, i.e., 75%. With lawyers, things are different in two ways. First, lawyers as a group are much more introverted than the general population. Richard pegged 57% of lawyers as introverts. And, the breakdown between men and women is different, too. While 59% of male lawyers are introverts, barely half—51%—of women lawyers are introverted.

Yet the Extravert/Introvert traits, like everything else in the Myers-Briggs world, are personality preferences, not personality absolutes. Introverts can act extraverted, and often do so they can function in the business world. Extraverted lawyers obviously spend a great deal of time processing problems in their heads, by necessity. They may not love it, but they can do it.

In fact with all four of the trait pairs, we go to our preferred trait by default, but switch back and forth among our preferred traits and non-preferred traits all day long. How often and how easily depends on the strength of the preference.

One of the tricks to using an MBTI assessment is understanding how strong a particular preference is for you. I’m fairly close to the E/I line, so I can pull off the Extravert act if I need or want to. At the end of the day, though, talking to people wears me out a bit and I need quiet time to think and process all those exciting conversations I have with clients. If I don’t have that kind of time, I’m a grouchy, ill-tempered mess. And if I’m coffee-deprived on top of that, being at least a mile away from me is an excellent idea.

If you are, for example, at the far end of the Introvert scale, choosing a job that requires oodles of customer service would be more suicidal than not. I’m just sayin’. If you’re toward the end of the Extravert scale, your ideal or really even a survivable job would need lots of meetings, group projects, and other opportunities to interact with live people very often. Introverts might need those things, too, but in a much lower concentration, to be happy in their work.

The strengths of Extraverts include the obvious “people person” ones, with working well in groups, easily making conversation and connecting with people, and generally energizing teams. They often can connect people in their large networks and create some wonderful synergies that way.

Introvert strengths sometimes get overlooked in fields outside law and other “thinky” industries and professions. One strength is their work independence—they don’t want lots of close supervision, which in a thinly staffed company is a definite virtue. While Introverts tend to know fewer people, they know them well—so in jobs where a deep or continuous relationship with a client or other entity is important, they can really excel.

Judging v. Perceiving—Git ‘er Done or Take It as It Comes

Those who fall in the J part of the scale are the “git ‘er done” people of the world. The J doesn’t stand for judgmental as much as conclusive, according to Richard. Js like order, structure and to-do lists, control over their environment, and are methodical. They like things to be settled. They’re decisive, usually doers. In the general population, about 55% are Js, compared to 63% for lawyers.

Perceivers, on the other hand, roll with the punches and tend to delay making decisions until they absolutely must; they like leaving their options open. They are more playful, spontaneous and informal than Js. They are good information gatherers, and seek to understand life rather than control it. They also tend to do their best work under deadline pressure. They really dislike rigid rules and regulations, instead preferring to make adjustments as the situation demands.

If you’re a strong P and a lawyer, you’re probably on the verge of losing your mind in law practice. Strong Js, on the other hand, feel like ducks in water. Some areas of law require less order and structure, so ENTPs, ISTPs and INTPs that aren’t strong Ps can often find a comfortable fit somewhere in law.

Our business culture really values J kinds of skills, so I’m not going to belabor those. Let’s just say that control is J specialty, and the business world values control one helluva lot.

Ps often get mocked as disorganized, undisciplined and sometimes flighty, though they have some really valuable business skills as well. The ability to think on their feet, for instance. They can be tremendously good at solving problems on the fly. (Methodical Js can really struggle with that.) Ps are often quite creative–a useful skill to have when solving new problems–because behind their seeming disorganization is a mind that makes unexpected, often brilliant connections between things that appear unrelated. And because they pursue understanding rather than control, Ps often are quite good at getting parties to agree to solutions. Their sense of play can often lighten the load in a tense atmosphere, if they aren’t surrounded by too many strong Js.

The traits of your E/I- and J/P-ness are often a list of non-legal but important business skills you can start to weave into your resume. So go to.

Next time, I’ll talk about the functional pairs, and why it’s important to choose work that closely matches those.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who worked for an unbelievably long time in an environment that didn’t suit her MBTI type. She coaches attorneys on finding work environments that match their personalities and skills, so they can enjoy work rather than dread it. Contact Jennifer at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com for a discounted sample coaching session.

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9 thoughts on “Yet More on the Lawyer Personality

  1. Pingback: Does Your Personality Fit into Law? « Leaving the Law

  2. Not sure how convinced I am about Myers-Briggs (I think humans are far too complicated and ever-changing to fit into a mere 16 categories), but I have consistently scored the same in the “INT” categories, but I always seem to get very mixed results when it comes to “P” and “J.” Strange.

    • When I first took this test, I basically got E/I NTP.

      However, I basically scored 100% T and 100% P.

      That’s back when I was going through my “logic” phase and thought that everything should be completely rational and also spontaneous.

      I took another online test somewhat rescently which scored me as percentage match.

      My percentages scores were INTJ, and INFJ/ENTP (in that order).

      So, the only thing I really have is a strong N component, with a slight I, T, and J preference.

  3. Are strong Ps doomed to hate law practice? Are there areas of law that are more suited to Ps?

    I’m a pretty strong P, don’t like rigid structure, don’t like doing things the same way every time. I’m also graduating law school in a few months – please tell me I’m not doomed.

    • You should start tracking what you do all day in 6 minute increments. Make sure you use complete sentences that sound like someone should pay at least $250/hr for what you just did.

      If you get an intense emotional high and sense of power out of this exercise, then you should be able to make an easy transition into law practice.

    • Doomed–what an interesting choice of word. What would it feel like instead to think about being liberated from law firm dysfunction? Or discovering early that you needed to choose a slightly different path, instead of spending years being miserable treading the road most traveled by lawyers before seeing that it isn’t for you?

      The short answer is, if you’re not one of the 6 dominant MBTI types found in law, you need to be very purposeful in finding the right niche in law for your personality. Take a read through the whole series I did for some further thinking on that. Here’s the link to the final one, which has links to all 5: http://leavinglaw.wordpress.com/2010/12/10/does-your-personality-fit-into-law/

  4. Pingback: Reframing Your Life and Legal Career « Leaving the Law

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