How Ignoring Feelings Makes Lawyers Look Like Idiots: The Donald Sterling Edition

Sometimes, Myers-Briggs realizations about lawyers hit me over the head. Like last week, when I watched lawyer commentators on The PBS NewsHour talk about Donald Sterling and the possible consequences when his racist diatribes became public.

The day the scandal broke, NewsHour interviewed 2 lawyers from academia: Michael McCann, Director of the Univ. of New Hampshire’s Sports and Entertainment Law Institute and legal analyst for Sports Illustrated, and Kenneth Shropshire, Director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative and a Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics  of the University of Pennsylvania.

Some lawyer personality traits can make attorneys look like doofuses.

Some lawyer personality traits can make attorneys look like doofuses.

McCann, who is white, was first: “It’s outrageous that someone would hold these views in 2014.” Good start. Then he continues, “The NBA has to approach this under the rules of the league, and ensuring that it doesn’t take any steps that prove to be wrong.” We’re worried about the NBA’s contracts, first and foremost?

Shropshire, who is black, came out swinging with “I think what is important at this moment is for the league to really recognize that this is a moment in time where they have the opportunity to make the rules right.” Um, the rules? Oh, such a Thinker lawyer point of view.

McCann then dredged up the horror the NBA could face with a wrong step: “The league could also pursue a more radical approach by trying to force him to sell the team. But the league constitution, which is the key legal document at stake, doesn’t likely give the NBA that authority. And if it were to pursue that path, Donald Sterling could sue the NBA and not be leaving any time soon.” Noooo, not a lawsuit! Anything but that!!!

And then Shropshire goes on to raise another subject important to lawyers: Money! “Well, the immediate economic effect on the team will be negligible. And it really will not have that much impact. But Michael makes a good point. The idea that it could last for the long term, that that could be pointed to as a reason to at least move forward and try to divest this ownership interest.”

Thinking Too Much Gets Lawyers in Trouble

Now I am sure that both McCann and Shropshire are quite excellent lawyers and decent human beings. I am sure that personally, they were disgusted and appalled at Sterling. But did ANY of this inform their views? So far as I can tell, not much. They stuck to a dry analysis of the law and contracts involved.

Fast-forward to the next day. Adam Silver, NBA commissioner and a also a lawyer, says, ““Effective immediately, I am banning Mr. Sterling for life from any association with the Clippers organization or the NBA.”  Watching the video, I got the sense that Silver didn’t give a rat’s rear about lawsuits or what the NBA governing documents said. He saw clearly that Sterling was a cancer to the NBA that simply had to go. He understood that the players would revolt and that the public would not put up with a lot of qualified, lawyer-like double-talk. The feelings in this situation were what controlled, not the metes and bounds of any contracts.

So what is the difference in these lawyers? When I look at it from a Meyers-Briggs perspective, Shropshire and McCann sound like classic Thinkers, which dominate in lawyer personality types (about 80%, in fact): They make decisions in a “detached, objective, logical manner.” They default to “being dispassionate, able to make decisions at arms-length from whatever emotional turmoil may surround a situation.”

Digging into Silver’s background a bit, I found this very interesting observation in a Wall Street Journal profile of him. Jan Uhrbach, who co-clerked with Silver in Judge Kimba Woods’ chambers, said Silver was “just very attuned to people.” That is a classic Feeler attribute: They feel they “make the best decisions by weighing what people care about and the points-of-view of persons involved in a situation. [They are] concerned with values and what is the best for the people involved. 

This key difference between the commentators and Silver? From where I sit,  Silver, with his Feeler talents, saw that he couldn’t just (publicly) lawyer through all the contracts and what-not that McCann and Shropshire were agonizing about. He saw clearly that the damage to the NBA was going to be severe if he didn’t act to make Dennis Sterling a pariah. Having deeply outraged players and fans, and having the NBA appear more concerned about its pocketbook than its morals, was in the long term going to cause a much deeper crisis for the league than whatever millions any lawsuit might cost. Feelings were in the driver’s seat, and in Silver, the NBA had a lawyer who understood that.

The fact that most lawyers don’t get the importance of how feelings can drive events, whether in national news or in their own little law firm cesspools of dysfunction, is a topic I’ll dive into another day. Soon!

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who was once one of the 20% of Feelers in law firms. It drove her nuts a lot of the time. Being in the minority viewpoint taught her a lot, though! If you’re interested in learning more about how to appreciate contradictory personalities while working with others, contact her at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com.

One thought on “How Ignoring Feelings Makes Lawyers Look Like Idiots: The Donald Sterling Edition

  1. The reviews altogether reached, to date, 18,579 with 21,802 in favor by thumbsup alone.
    The Power button ‘d be pressed by me, and it’d may actually start back up,
    but I’d finish up using a dark display.

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