The Other Key Lawyer Personality Trait: Think, Don’t Feel

The Thinking/Feeling preference in the Myers-Briggs typology is a biggie for happiness and satisfaction at work. If that aspect of your personality is stifled, devalued, and can’t be used in your work, you’re going to be miserable.

That’s because T/F is one of the function pairs (the other is the Sensing/Intuitive pair). The function pairs are where you are likely the least malleable and least able to bend your personality to fit in—in other words, it’s where you’re the most hard-wired.

frustrated woman

The average day for a Feeling type in a typical law job.

What does that mean for unhappy lawyers? In a nutshell, you need to figure out it you’re like the archetypal lawyer when it comes to the Thinking/ Feeling divide. And if you’re on the Feeling side, you have some pondering to do.

When it comes to lawyers, Thinking types dominate. Indeed, Dr. Larry Richard in his ABA Journal article says that 78% of lawyers show a Thinker preference. Thinking types strongly prefer making decisions in a “detached, objective, logical manner.” Which of course makes perfect sense—those are some of the hallmarks of lawyering, right?

One thing I found particularly interesting about Richard’s research is how women lawyers tested. Turns out that women lawyers often do think more like men, at least when it comes to the Thinking/Feeling preference scale. In the general population, 60% of men fall on the T side, while only 35% of women do. (So yes, there’s a whopping tablespoon of truth in the whole Mars v. Venus thing.) In lawyers, Richard found that 66% of women lawyers are Ts, and 81% of male lawyers are.

The essence of Thinking types, according to Personality Pathways, is their focus on “being dispassionate, able to make decisions at arms-length from whatever emotional turmoil may surround a situation.” Yep, sounds like the lawyer ideal to me. An important attribute of Thinkers is that they don’t take conflict personally, and in fact, as Richard points out, they can really look forward to a good argument.

Feeling types? Not so much. For starters, most are about “validating and valuing others, encouraging, coaching, educating and motivating. . . . [P]rotecting, helping, and caretaking” rank highly in their world. Also, being authentic and open to emotions and inner sensations are pretty high on a Feeling type’s list of what’s important in life.

So Feeling types do not like conflict (to put it mildly), take it personally, and value harmony highly. They are the “can’t we all just get along” gurus of the world.

Knowing whether you’re a Feeler or a Thinker is important to assessing whether to stay in law. As Richard notes, “[t]he constant adversarial mentality wears on a feeler, while for a thinker it can represent one of the most stimulating parts of law practice.”

One interesting trend that both Richard and law schools are starting to notice is that higher numbers of Feeling types have been entering law recently. It could be that with increasing numbers of women in the profession, the Feeling attribute is also increasing (remember about 65% of women in the general population are Feelers).

Or, it could be that Millenials are driving the trend. As Richard theorizes, maybe “more Feelers enter law because of the possibility of realizing some of their ideals. (Feelers are more likely to seek a job that is idealistic.)” The data about why we’re seeing more Feelers in law isn’t clear yet, Richard says.

What does this mean for Feeling types already in law who are trying to find a happy career? Should you try to find a niche in law? Well, it depends. (Yes, the quintessential lawyer answer. Sorry!)

My own take—which I should point out is not exactly what the average Myers-Briggs expert would say—is that the never-ending friction that Feeling types experience in nearly any type of law environment will drive them at the very least a little batshit crazy most days. Being surrounded by Ts who approach life and decisions in a fundamentally different way than Feeling types do is a recipe for constant miscommunication and conflict. That drives just about anyone nuts.

If you’re just barely over the line into the F preference scale and you otherwise like law, you could make a go of it and come out fairly satisfied with your work life. But you’re going to have to do some serious looking to find the right environment for you to utilize your Feeler qualities regularly. If you don’t do that, you will remain frustrated and unhappy in law.

No matter where you are on the Feeling type scale, locking yourself into a career where that preference is devalued, even mocked—as it is in most law firms and quite a few other legal environments—is a roadmap into depression and/or constant self-doubt. Is that really what you want out of  life?

Being a strong F and trying to work in a very Thinker-heavy environment is like trying to wear a size 7 shoe when really, you are a size 9. You will never, ever be comfortable (let alone functional) until you find the right shoe size and start wearing it all the time. If your workplace insists that you must wear that size 7, well, you have a choice, don’t you?

For those who have been following along this latest Lawyer Personality jag, you’ll be relieved to know there’s only one more to go—the one where I muse a little on what it all means for your job search, whether that be an alternative to law or a better place for you in law.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who is pretty sure it was the “N”, not the “F” part of her personality type that got her through law school and 8 years of law practice. She coaches attorneys on how to find work that matches all the parts of their unique and wonderful personalities. Contact Jennifer at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com for a discounted sample coaching session to explore your perfect work fit.

20 thoughts on “The Other Key Lawyer Personality Trait: Think, Don’t Feel

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

  2. I sometimes wonder if my NF traits, being so unusual in law practice, give me a some advantages because I’m not like the majority of lawyers. I’ve been in negotiations and litigation situations where I can see that opposing counsel can’t read me, and my responses have surprised them. But you’re right, the technical argument is not my strong suit, even though I went to a top program and taught for a high level LSAT course – I can look like a ‘quant’ in short bursts and can perform at high levels, but it’s like a jet afterburner mode that burns me my focus and energy very quickly. When opposing counsel starts trying to speak in arcane statutory references rather than concepts, my eyes roll back.

    Currently primarily a solo “consumer” lawyer, I know I excel in empathy and teaching clients – a significant % of my intakes have met with other attorneys and they say over and over again that they want to hire me because 1) I explained everything to them; and 2) some way or another, they felt that the other lawyer(s) didn’t “care” about them [as people]. Part of my skill is that I am the kind of person that can have nearly anyone spill their guts within minutes, and can easily connect/bond with others on a social level.

    That said, you’re right: being an iNtuitive Feeler means that the conflict, the anger, the blame, the attitude, the hostility from everyone really grinds you down day after day. You feel like a lighting rod for everyone’s negative energy: both clients and opposing counsel. It may sound surprising but part of the way I’ve dealt with it is to take on smaller matters in higher volume, rather than a few Earth-Ending federal litigation cases where whole businesses are at stake.

    I’m honest in saying that I have never intended law to be my lifetime career, even when entering law school I set a goal to be out within 5-10 years, and move on to a second career. The obstacle is my horrendous law school debt.

    • @NFLawyer – I can readily identify with your experiences with your strengths (ExFJ here) and appreciate the input. Currently pursuing a practice that will capitalize on those strengths and leaning toward solo practice.

      • I’m also a INFP and work in corporate/in-house work. I don’t have much conflict because it’s mostly transnational. I hate credit collections because I always feel bad for the people on the other side and I have been mocked by our President for this. But I do generally enjoy negotiations because in that scenario lawyers are working together to get a job done–to make a deal. So, it’s much less adversarial and you feel like you’re protecting/helping your client more than dealing with conflict resolution.

        I do not think that INFPs would make great litigators and would probably have a problem in Big Law. I avoided all of that by going straight in-house because I knew I would hate firm life. However, one problem I’ve faced (being the only attorney at my job) is that I have a problem following processes and structure (thank god I have a wonderful assistant). I would appreciate having a traditional INTJ around. Someone who can make up the processes and implement them instead of the free form, last minute things I have a tendency towards.

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  7. I am so happy and relieved to have found your blog! I’m a second-career lawyer who decided to get on the BigLaw train after earning my degree. 5 months in and I know that I’ve made a big mistake. I’ve quickly learned that my personality doesn’t fit, both with my work and my colleagues. I’m an NF. Just about everything in this post resonated with me.

    Now I’m still trudging through my workdays, but finding some comfort and energy in doing all the tough and scary work to figure out what my next move will be — whether it’s returning to my old field (education) or striking out elsewhere. Thanks for this blog and for the community of folks you’ve assembled through it.

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  10. I’m INTP and get along well with some feelers, such as INFJs, ENFPs and ENFJs.

    For example, ENFJs are quite open to new ideas (Fe+Ni) if I get to discuss the topic through with them – they’re great people strategists and convincing. ENFJs are often into finding out about things and open, whereas INFJs are more stubborn. INFJs easily shut down if contradicted or their vision fails, and thinkers can be blunt when dealing with INFJs.

    I would theorise that T and F can work well together. Intuition is bigger deal. I’d say that INTPs despite being thinkers can have biggest problems with ISTJs, ESFJs and ESTJs who can be domineering, detail-oriented and rigid at worst. I imagine that in work environment ENFPs and INFPs face similar problems when dealing with SJ types.

    T and F diffence isn’t always the problem. NFs and NTs could try connecting with ENFJs, ENTPs, INFJs and INTPs. And some ENTJs and INTJs. Sharing some intuition balances interpersonal relations alot.

    This is not about type hatred, rather just trying to point out that at a work place it might be sensible for NTs and NFs to network with other intuitives, rather than overemphasize T/F-differences. Of course, there’s no point in blocking out SJ-types, but just food for thought if one feels lonely at work place. So if you’re INFJ or ENFP lawyer, go looking for INTJs or INTPs.

    And perhaps type differences don’t matter so much IF the people are well-balanced.

  11. INTx here with a slight preference for J (all other preferences are very strong). Just wanted to say I appreciate this post as I just started delving into the personality traits of lawyers today and discovered that I might have missed my calling. I started but quit law school back in my early 20’s, but am now much more attuned to how much I enjoy argument and discord. The lack of fit works the other way also (being a T in an F environment). For instance, I often find that the very things I find funny are mean from the viewpoint of someone who has an F preference (Whaaat? What’s wrong with that? It’s funny! C’mon you guys!). My preference for T is so high that I do relate best with other T’s.

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  14. INFJ here. Fantastic articles and analysis on the Meyers-Briggs personalities in the legal profession. I’m writing to express two concerns I see in this post, as a strong Feeler.

    1) T Dominant Environment: To say that Feelers will have difficulty fitting into a profession dominated by Thinkers is to suggest that the profession does not have room to grow, to change, to evolve. And based on the sorry state of our justice system today, I would humbly suggest that our profession may need more Feelers to bring about a closer version of ‘justice’ than we see today. Feelers: do not be discouraged. Just because the legal profession is dominated by Thinkers now does not mean it has to stay that way. The legal profession is changing, and there is a place for you.

    2) The Adversarial Nature of Law: America is unique in its justice model, in that it holds to the belief that two lawyers going at it will bring out the truth, fairness, and a middle ground within that push and pull. Let me say it again: America. Is. Unique. The adversarial model it follows is found no where else in the world, at least not on such a large scale. This adversarial model promotes the “me or them” mindset, the “let me get mine” mindset, a mindset of duality, of separation, of conflict. The law, as a justice system, does not have to be designed this way. We perpetuate it. In this environment, certain types thrive, types such as Thinkers that are more able to detach themselves from their emotions and remain objective. Personally, I would expect such a type to be more suited for the sciences, not in a profession where one deals with humans and a range of emotions everyday. You simply cannot put someone through the justice system without needing to hear their story, their reasoning, and their emotions. Likewise, you cannot design a justice system that attempts to ignore this side of our humanity in a pretense to get at the truth. And yet, most of us believe our adversarial model works. Look at the news. It does not.

    Feelers – you do not need to shy away from the emotional challenge of a legal career. Feelers function best when they learn how to protect themselves from emotional and emphatical overload. The legal profession can be a great, if not a rough teacher.

    Thankfully, the justice system in America is changing. Alternative conflict resolution techniques are being developed, embraced, and fine-tuned. As mentioned, more Feelers are entering the profession. And don’t be fooled by the dialetical approach of the Meyers Briggs – as also mentioned, these dualities are merely preferences. All Thinkers “feel”, and all Feelers “think”. No one except ‘ignant likes to be with like: you and your emotional intelligence will be welcomed into many legal working environments. If the shoe doesn’t fit, just find a new shoe. Don’t abandon shoes all-together.

    • Dominique, thanks for your thoughtful comments.

      I fully agree that MBTI has some decided limitations. And I also agree that the law culture desperately needs more balance when it comes to empathy and general social skills. When the billable hour was not the sole metric by which lawyers were judged, I do think it was somewhat easier for Feelers.

      But. Law has gotten really dysfunctional in the last 30 years, in part due to the 24/7/365 omnipresence of phones, texts and emails. It’s a killer cocktail for all lawyers, but especially for really sensitive Feelers. (which isn’t necessarily all Feelers) If your default is NF, you are really going to need some strong ideals to support and work toward to make all the emotional crap worth it. Law firms are NOT that place, 98% of the time.

      I don’t think it’s the soul purpose (and I mean soul, not sole) of most Feelers to work to reform a broken corporate culture. If it is, fantastic! Have at it. Go be a lawyer in a typical law firm, get involved in firm management, ABA committees, local bar, etc. We need people who WANT to do that.

      If that’s not the soul purpose of a Feeler, it is cruel to ask them to take on someone else’s ideals and suffer for that.

      The only people who can really decide that is the Feeler person her/himself.

      • I completely agree, 100% 🙂 I wasn’t actually thinking of the corporate/firm lawyer in my response, but I do think Feelers have a place in those positions as well. I just wanted to add my two cents for Feelers who read your post and get the impression that the legal profession is a cold dark place where they are not welcome; this is not the case. Our profession really needs some help to change from within, and it won’t happen if we keep perpetuating an image of the logical automaton lawyer who is out of touch with their feelings. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet many, many in our profession who believe the same change is needed not just to our image, but to ourselves.

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