You want to know why lawyers are such raging assholes? It isn’t their Meyers-Briggs type, or their top values in the VIA Character Strengths and Values assessment. Nope, it’s that a huge majority of them are quite below-average when it comes to emotional intelligence. So lawyers are, in fact, a bunch of emotional fuckwits.
This lack of emotional intelligence almost always boils down to one thing: the way lawyers deal with conflict.
Conflict Management: It’s Not Who Yells Loudest (Really!)
If you’ve worked in or around law, you may be surprised to learn there are 5 different strategies that people generally use for conflict management.
- Accommodating: Giving the other side what it wants.
- Avoiding: Seeking to put off conflict indefinitely.
- Collaborating: Finding a way to integrate solutions from multiple sources.
- Compromising: Giving up elements of a position to get to an acceptable solution.
- Competing: Treating the conflict as a win/lose situation, aka zero-sum game.
Now I’ll bet several of you have already discerned the top strategy that lawyers use: competing. As a story in the Houston Chronicle says,
“Highly assertive personalities often fall back on competition as a conflict management strategy. The competitive strategy works best in a limited number of conflicts, such as emergency situations.”
The thing is, lawyers are notoriously bad at shutting off their lawyerliness. That’s why dealing with someone who uses competing—remember, an emergency management strategy—in daily dealings is utterly wearing and unpleasant. If they don’t get what they want, when they want it, they tend to go ballistic. Never mind that there are other demands that a reasonable person would say need addressing first. Hence the constant anxiety of most associates, assistants, and paralegals in law firms, along with many partners.
See No Conflict, Hear No Conflict, Speak No Conflict
The second strategy that lawyers employ most often in dealing with conflict? Straight-up avoidance. They just hope that if they stick their head in the sand long enough, the problem will magically disappear. Occasionally, that even works.
Usually, avoidance works in a situation like the firing of an employee; anger from other employees about that usually fades with time, as long as the firing was about performance and not politics, sexism, or racism. Mostly, though, conflict avoidance leaves a trail of resentment, frustration, and bitter anger in its wake.
As Ursula Le Guin puts it so elegantly,
[A]nger nursed and nourished begins to act like anger suppressed: it begins to poison the air with vengefulness, spitefulness, distrust, breeding grudge and resentment, brooding endlessly over the causes of the grudge, the righteousness of the resentment.”
I will excuse you if you’ve already thought, “Yep, sounds like where I work.”
Bottom line: Lawyers tend to be either highly abrasive, or gutless wonders. And their workplaces reflect that.
I would be willing to bet that, even if your preference is for collaboration, you’ve been using competing and avoiding to deal with work conflicts. It’s a “when in Rome” kind of response, and I did the same thing when I was in law firms.
Collaboration Needs Creative Thinkers–Uh-oh, Lawyers!
One of the reasons lawyers suck at collaboration is that it takes creative thinking, which in law is squashed like roadkill. That’s not to say that lawyers are inherently un-creative, at all. In fact, most of my clients are quite creative, either in a traditional way like writing, visual art, or music, or in how they approach problem solving.
My suspicion is that much unhappiness in law stems from the need to stuff creativity into a tiny little corner inside, or risk being attacked, mocked, or ridiculed. Or all three. Cf., competing.
Yet when you leave law, you’re going to need far more creativity than you use in legal settings. Even those who move in-house quickly find that their new business culture values collaboration and creative problem-solving over “because I’m a lawyer and I’m right.”
I expect you may feel a bit defeated, thinking you need to show you’re creative–in a creativity-squashing environment–before you can leave the misery of law. I don’t say this to scare and depress you, though. The good news is, creativity is like any other talent or skill: The more you practice it, the more you have.
So look for ways to take your creativity out for a spin. Make a simple Pinterest project. (If it doesn’t go well, I’d suggest a visit to pinterestfail.com. You’ll feel better.) Let yourself write down a neat phrase you heard or thought of. Go sing some karaoke. Anything with even a whiff of creativity is good. More of it is better.
If you want to work on that creativity and see what it can help you with, you know where to find me.
Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer with a creativity affliction and an unhealthy love of plaid. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.