Why Are There So Many Asshole Lawyers?

When people ask me why I left law, I usually tell them that my personality didn’t fit into law, that I found it excrutiatingly boring, and that I really wanted to do something I liked. Which is all true. I also sound less bitter than if I l tell them that frankly, I couldn’t deal with all the asshole lawyer behavior. That was the bottom line for me.

The most consistent complaints I hear from clients about law firms are the toxicity and dysfunctionality of firms, and billable hours. Those two things are actually related, but for now I’m going to focus on the asshole side of things. Fun!

Probably not the most emotionally intelligent way to interact with colleagues.

Probably not the most emotionally intelligent way to interact with colleagues.

For the 25 or so years I’ve been in and around law, the disdain the majority of law firm lawyers have for feelings and values has done nothing but grow. I recently read that as far back as the Stone Age, aka the 1950s,  this has been a problem for the legal profession. No less a luminary than Erwin Griswold, Dean of Harvard Law School in the 1950s, said, “Many lawyers never do seem to understand that they are dealing with people and not solely with the impersonal law.”

One of the big drivers of lawyers’ inability to appreciate and deal with emotions stems from a core skill of any competent lawyer: the ability to analyze problems in a detached, objective,  and logical manner. This is the Thinker default, in Myers-Briggs personality terminology. In other words, being dispassionate and logical is the default, the comfort zone for the vast majority of lawyers. (The opposing end of the Thinker axis is the Feeler, who are primarily concerned with values and what is best for the people involved.)

According to research of Dr. Larry Richard, a legal consultant, psychologist and former practicing attorney himself, about 70% of lawyers are Thinkers. Some place that number even higher, near 80%. I’d take a wild guess that for law firm leadership, it’s more like 90%. The high percentage of Thinkers controlling law firms, and the almost universally dysfunctional work environments of law firms, are not just an accident or coincidence.

Lawyers Are Emotional Idiots

Just because people default to Thinking as their preferred problem-solving tool doesn’t mean they don’t have feelings, or that they cannot use a Feeler approach to solve problems. But what it does mean is that they often are not very adept at situations that require facility with managing feelings.

Another way of looking at the source of law firm dysfunction and toxicity is via the Calpers Personality Profile. I’m not any kind of expert on it, but Ronda Muir, author of The Unique Psychological World of Lawyers (an excellent read), is. She pegs something important about law firm dysfunction when she says:

[S]kepticism 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, particularly litigation, tax and M&A.  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. (emphasis added)

Also, when it comes to emotional intelligence, Muir points out that lawyers often don’t perceive their own, let alone others’, emotions. So “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.“ In other words, they are out of touch with their own emotions and pretty clueless about others. Sound familiar?

Another interesting psychological metric that contributes mightily to organizational dynamics is the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode. It measures 5 different methods that people use to solve conflict: competing, collaborating, compromising, avoiding and accommodating. Most of us tend to use 1 or 2 methods, rather than all 5. General business leaders tend to use collaborating and compromising as their go-to conflict resolution tools.

Naturally, lawyers do not use these much. Instead, they primarily use competing and avoiding. As you might imagine, this doesn’t go well for anyone involved. “The upshot of this preference is that lawyers tend to either engage in an all-out war over divisive matters, with the intent of ‘winning,’ or they walk away,” according to Muir. This is why we have those $25,000 comma meetings in law firms, and people who won’t even say hello to each other in the hallway.

Now, I would wager that in law firms across the country, not a day goes by without hundreds of psychologically stunted or emotionally inappropriate behaviors. But usually, we don’t hear about them. Thanks in part to the glory of email and gossipy media like Above the Law, though, we have a wonderful example of very recent asshole behavior from a BigLaw firm, Kirkland & Ellis.

Fallout From Asshole Partner Email

In case you didn’t get the story forwarded to you by 10 of your colleagues, the gist of the story is that Kenneth Morrison, a Chicago partner in charge of the firm’s asset finance and securitization practice, got peeved about the number of firm-wide emails he has been receiving that ask for help about matters he viewed as inappropriate. So he sent out his own firm-wide email that, in a nutshell, blasted and shamed the 3 most recent senders. It was about 1,000 words long, so I’m estimating he took at least 45 minutes to research and write it.

But he didn’t just spew at 3 poor Kirkland lawyers. He also managed to take a swing at recent lateral hires from Simpson Thacher & Bartlett (“a/k/a Kirkland’s AAA farm club”), efforts by many of his other partners to teach people like him to be nice and play well together, Scotland (weirdly), and senders of 2 other long-ago firm-wide emails that irked him. It is spectacular reading, and I encourage you to read it in full.

What Thinkers like Morrison utterly fail to see is how these nastygrams really affect the productivity and quality of work in their firms, due to their colleagues’ feelings. Let’s break down what likely happened at Kirkland & Ellis in the wake of Morrison’s temper tantrum. (I’ll leave aside the $1,000 of Morrison’s own billable time that it likely took to compose his email.)

  1. Reading time. Let’s be conservative and say that 60% of Kirkland & Ellis lawyers read the email. So that’s roughly 850 lawyers who spent .1 billable hours simply on reading. Assuming a median rate of $700/hr., that’s a $595,000 hit on income. But of course, most attorneys would work that extra 6 minutes, so let’s move on to the real productivity costs.
  2. Talking about the email. Whether by email, commenting on the article on Above the Law and other places, or actual office and hallway conversations, I’d wager that at least 500 Kirkland lawyers spent a good half-hour each discussing not only the email,  but also Morrison in general, the Kirkland culture, and a lot of other gripes they have about their colleagues. So now, we’re talking $2.38 million of talk time. I’m not confident that all that time will be recovered, due to #3.
  3. Emotional wounding and distraction. Even when those 500 lawyers finished talking about the email, it still left an emotional mark on those who already were unhappy about the firm and the profession. Emails like Morrison’s are a trigger. They set off waves of unrest and dissatisfaction, if not outright plunges into depression and anxiety. Focus gets lost, and it’s hard to regain. So you have a bunch of lawyers who are not thinking well or clearly (let’s say at least half, so 425 of the 850 that we guess read the email). They may end up doing substandard work, which means that other people have to review work and catch mistakes (cha-ching!) that they wouldn’t have had to do otherwise. And the distracted lawyer has to fix stuff (more cha-ching!). Plus it makes it hard for many of them to even drag themselves to the office the next day, or get to work at all, if the experiences of me and my clients is any indicator.
  4. Decreased efficiency. Memos like Morrison’s ratchet up the perfectionism and fear factors of most lawyers, particularly the less experienced ones. Scared people don’t think as well as calm people. Also, people are afraid to reach out for help on projects they don’t understand. That leads to poor work product (and what if that doesn’t get caught?), feelings of isolation and desperation, and lost opportunities to learn and grow as a lawyer. Gee, sign me up!
  5. When Morrison-type missives are par for the course, lawyers flee. This is true particularly for young associates who are just becoming profitable and important parts of teams. Lawyers routinely underestimate and dismiss the value of knowledge and talent flight, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It costs firms a lot, in terms of lost revenue, lost knowledge, training and such, to replace associates. Estimates range from $250,000 to $500,000. So if we assume that Morrison’s email is the trigger that ultimately causes even 20 lawyers to walk out in the next year, he has cost his firm between $5 and $10 million. Even to BigLaw, that’s not chump change.

The Take-Away for Thinker and Feeler Lawyers

Of course, the real irony is that Morrison and many lawyers think he’s solving a problem, by ridding them of highly irritating email overload. I’d wager that these lawyers think their efficiency will improve, and maybe it will. The easiest solution, the delete function, takes less than a 30 seconds for a single email. So maybe they have to delete 25 firm-wide, annoying emails. That might take .1 hours.

Of course, if they suck at emotional regulation (a topic for another post), like so many attorneys do, they might let that irritation bloom into a 15-minute internal or hallway rant. Still, that’s far less costly in billable time and inefficiency than the consequences of the email.

The take-away, for those of you suffering in the toxic cesspool of law firm dysfunction?

If you’re a Feeler, understand that some of the asshole behavior around you is because many of your colleagues simply aren’t getting enough information about emotions of clients, colleagues and staff to make good decisions. Approach them (during a non-crisis moment) with an example of when that happened, perhaps modeled a bit on my analysis above. Offer to help them gather more information before deciding something. If you approach it as information deficit, you’re more likely to get some buy-in. Thinkers, after all, love data; you’re offering to give them more.

If you’re a Thinker, recognize that your comfort zone is in reasoning things out and being dispassionate, and that’s where you tend to go whenever there’s a problem to solve or a conflict brewing. When you need to analyze a legal issue, this tendency is a real asset.

But Thinkers must understand that thinking your way through a problem is only one of several tools available to you, and that other tools are more appropriate and effective in some situations. Being questioning and argumentative is fine in court and often (though not always) with opposing counsel, but is likely to garner you the less-than-coveted title of “Asshole Lawyer” if you use that tool in every single situation in your career and life.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who was once one of the 20% of Feelers in law firms. If being surrounded by asshole lawyers is making you miserable, she can help. Contact her at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com to schedule a discounted sample session.

4 thoughts on “Why Are There So Many Asshole Lawyers?

    • So true, JP, so true. I had to keep the focus on the fairly normal, or it would have been a 5,000 word diatribe instead of a 2,000 word one!

  1. they’re why I decided to go back to the phone company after retraining in school & then working as a paralegal for a few years. OMG could I tell you stories!

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