Does Your Personality Fit into Law?

So unhappy lawyer, you’ve got a clue about what your Myers-Briggs type is. You may even, if you’ve read the other posts I’ve written about the MBTI alphabet (here, here, here and here), have some ideas about whether you fit into law or not.

close up of pink lilly

Are you are lilly planted among cacti? Uproot yourself! Photo courtesy Stockvault.net and Heather Kitchin.

But here’s the biggest tip of all: Your Myers-Briggs type is not your destiny. It’s a tool that helps you find career happiness, whether that is in the legal profession or in an alternative career to law.

In other words, just because you fall into one of the 6 personality types that predominate in law—ISTJ, ESTJ, INTJ, ENTP, INTP or ENTJ—doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider leaving law. You may fit in, but maybe you would be far happier away from the dysfunction of the law firm environment.

And just because you’re not one of those 6 types, doesn’t mean you must leave law to find career happiness. Maybe there is something compelling (in a positive, rather than fearful way) about law that trumps the negatives for you.

Deal with Who You Actually Are

What you do need to do is pay attention to what your type preferences are telling you. Most of the time, your MBTI type reveals what you’ve been ignoring, denying, or hoping would just go away if you worked harder at being what you’re actually not. Stop fighting your hard-wiring. Find work that plays to your strengths, not your weaknesses.

The MBTI can help you get out of reductionist lawyer-think and see that humans are varied and diverse, and that we all have special personality quirks that are, in fact, quite valuable and actually useful. Even if your innate preferences aren’t valued in a law environment, they are valuable. That’s a revelation to a lot of lawyers.

There is no one set of job skills or personality type that is superior. There are, though, places where some personality types are going to thrive, and others where that same type will whither and die. Law is filled with people who didn’t or couldn’t see that they were beautiful lilies sending themselves off to be planted with the cacti.

There are lots of reasons why we do this to ourselves. Partly, it’s that many lawyers choose law at a young age, without knowing much about themselves, let alone what the realities of lawyering are. And, when you’re young, you often think you’re invincible, and that the harsh realities people try to warn you about simply won’t happen—after all, you’re really smart and determined, and you’ll figure it out.

Or, your lack of self-knowledge led you to rely on others, like parents, teachers and friends, to tell you what to do. Time for that to stop, isn’t it?

Youthful idiocy is why it took 2 Myers-Briggs assessments before I started paying attention to it. By the time I’d practiced law for 5 or 6 years, I had had enough real-life experience in unsuitable environments to listen to what the MBTI was saying. By then, I was convinced that I had little skill or talent to offer anyone at any price. I was really beaten down.

The MBTI helped me see positive value in what I had been told repeatedly were negatives. To most lawyers, my way of doing things was just wrong, bad, and needed to be corrected.

Just how much I had internalized the constant criticism came home to me when I was talking to a sales rep at a career consulting firm, and I told him one of my problems was that I got bored easily. I thought this was a major flaw in my work ethic, to be honest. Never mind the sheer amount of work it took to get through college with A’s, and a top 10 law school with good enough credentials to then clerk for a federal judge—I obviously didn’t have a decent work ethic if I didn’t like doing the same stuff for 10 hours, day in and day out.

Here’s what I’ll never forget: The sales rep said to me, “You aren’t bored, you just need more challenges.” It was a huge lightbulb moment for me. And it also is very true of Perceiving part of my MBTI type, which loathes (and I mean seriously, allergically hates) repeatedly following the same routines. (Perceiving types adore variety and change. So if you’re a P and trying to work in a BigLaw factory, it probably isn’t going to work very well for you.)

The Importance of the Middle Traits

When you’re looking to your MBTI type to help you sort out where to focus your career energies, pay the most attention to the middle two pairs, S/N and T/F. Those are the function pairs: ST, SF, NT and NF. Those pairs are the most closely correlated with job satisfaction.

In other words, the function pairs are where you are the least malleable and able to bend your personality to fit in. Function pairs often represent some core values for you, and violating those core values daily is exhausting and dispiriting. Do it long enough, and you are asking depression to come visit with an engraved invitation.

For example, imagine you’re an NF, a function pair that strongly prefers to approach life and work in a warm and enthusiastic manner, and likes to focus on ideas and possibilities, particularly possibilities for people. Now, how satisfied would you be if you were working in an environment that had a high concentration of NTs, a function pair that really likes work requiring an impersonal and analytical approach to ideas, information and people? Hello, oil and water? Add to that the insane demands and stresses of the current workplace, and it’s like the spark that sets up complete flame-out.

Maybe that’s where you are now. The good news is, you don’t have to hope, like the lilly does, that someone will come along, uproot you from the desert and plant you in the right place. You are the one who wields the shovel.

So how do you figure out where to transplant yourself?

  1. Listen. Listen to yourself and your honest likes and dislikes. Quit discounting them just because others around you do. You matter, and what you prefer in this world matters.
  2. Look for jobs that value your innate preferences, rather than violating them constantly.
  3. Stop doing your job search the way most people do, by totting up your skills and looking for job descriptions that match them. The only thing that method will produce is more of the same work life. Isn’t that what you’re trying to escape?
  4. Look for what excites you. Even in a great job, there’s a certain amount of drudgery and ick. Having enthusiasm for your work overall will carry you through those tough spots more easily and gracefully. As opposed to now, when the tough spots feel like every single day and threaten to drown your spirit oh, say, hourly.
  5. Pay attention to what MBTI types concentrate in which  jobs and industries. Move toward the ones that have a fair number of your type. Being surrounded by people who share similar approaches and values is a big part of what makes a work environment feel supportive.

All these suggestions are simple in theory, but the execution is where things get hairy. If you need help with maintaining focus while you are executing your brilliantly simply plan for a happy lawyer life—well, I know this career and life coach who used to be a lawyer . . .

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who played against her type for a decade or so, before she discovered that working with her strengths required a lot less therapy. She helps attorneys maintain their focus while executing their brilliant new career plans. Contact Jennifer at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com for a discounted sample coaching session to get you going on your path.

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11 thoughts on “Does Your Personality Fit into Law?

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  5. Thank you, Jennifer! I’m an NF and was wondering if going into environmental law would work for me. Hmmm…you just saved me years of drudgery.

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  7. I was thinking of going to school for law. I am INTP, and I thought that would be a good fit. Unfortunately, I have lots of info (including here) that make me think otherwise…
    I was a vocal performance major, and spent my entire life thinking I would be an opera singer….
    I don’t know what else to do! :/

    • Bethany, I’m in a similar position to you… asking some of the same questions, hoping to make an informed decision. I’m an ENTP, very strong NT but weak E and P that I can flip to I or J and be totally content as long as I balance it in some other aspect of my life. I’m mid 20’s seriously considering law school in a real way. I Majored in Chemistry, have worked in the National Science Foundation and several other top level research positions. I’m competitive, achievement focused and good at what I do, but I absolutely hate the culture and lifestyle of chemistry. I’ve come to the point where I just can’t tolerate it any longer, and I’d rather take the initiative to actively change careers than get suck having to conform to a culture/mentality that I do not appreciate. This website raises some concerns for me too, especially related to working in biglaw… It gives me a lot to consider and definitely points-out some pitfalls that I need to watch out for, but it also confirms a lot of my reasons for pursuing law. The most important thing I’ve learned over the past couple of years is to actively define my own professional identity and make independent career choices. I met with a career counselor focused in law, took the MBTI and I’d look at it this way, STJ’s; NTJ’s; and NTP’s can all be very happy in law – but each faces a unique set of challenges. In my opinion, the NTP’s greatest challenge is to make sure that they define their profession and themselves, rather than allow their profession to define them, which would be a potential problem if one allowed themselves to be stereotyped by a big firm – and law has a strong stereotype. Most of my STJ friends (many of them chemists or doctors) are perfectly happy being stereotyped and actually embrace the culture of their discipline, they’ll walk around in lab coats on the weekends, hang out almost exclusively with chemists/doctors, and dress up as hydrogen peroxide for Halloween; to them that’s cool, to me that’s fake and superficial. I don’t find these articles to discourage me from pursuing law, especially sense my alternative is to not make an active career choice and let myself be defined by circumstance. I think they are an awesome resource in considering how I should pursue law without losing myself in the process. For me that means that I’m going to keep kayaking, dancing salsa, and driving a beat up Subaru, even if every other car in the parking lot is a new Mercedes.

      • I think you’ve hit the nail on the head–maybe inadvertently–about why so many find the law oppressive: it’s the culture. The very toxic, dysfunctional culture that reigns in most law firms of any size. If you want to get a real taste of how nasty it can be, check out the comments to the posts on the Above the Law website. A lot of toxic, unhappy BigLaw lawyers post there, and you can get a real quick read on the culture of the average big corporate law firm, especially those in New York (but not exclusively).

  8. The one problem with the Myers-brigg test, imho is that it does not take into account one’s “functioning” level. I tend to meet all of the “typical” personality traits–thinker, intuitive, judgmental, etc. However, I do not like “executing.” I like planning, organizing, categorizing, and problem solving—once I find the answer, I find implementing the solution to be boring and tedious. Thus, I am great at research and memo writing; but I hate dealing with other lawyers, talking on the phone or going to court. Law school prepares you to think like a lawyer; it doesn’t prepare you to act like one.

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