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A Case Study In Lawyer Arrogance
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A Case Study In Lawyer Arrogance


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This article describes how a lawyer criticized for arrogance achieved greater self-awareness with the help of a coach.

This article describes how a lawyer criticized for arrogance achieved greater self-awareness with the help of a coach.

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  • 1. A Case Study in Arrogance Diagnosing and Addressing Lawyers’ Most Common Blind Spot By Douglas B. Richardson Douglas B. Richardson fter receiving informal but universally with the basic personality characteristics that A positive feedback for years from his col- lead people to pursue legal careers and that, leagues in a commercial litigation bou- actually, make them good lawyers. Many people tique, a young partner made a lateral move into who self-select into the legal profession display a large national firm that recently had instituted a common menu of motivations, traits and atti- a sophisticated performance evaluation pro- tudes on personality assessment instruments: gram. For the first time he received a “360°” They are highly autonomous “individual con- multi-rater evaluation in which superiors, peers tributors” geared to individual achievement: and subordinates opined about his strengths • rational, logical and dispassionate in their and soft spots. His legal abilities were described basic cognitive style by all as excellent, but to his extreme surprise, • confident that their opinions are correct colleagues at all levels described him as arro- • intuitive thinkers who tend to make quick gant. To add salt to the wounds, he learned that assumptions and judgments an important client had complained about his “If you are • more oriented toward completing tasks than attitude and his patronizing style to the firm’s building relationships managing partner. perceived as • define their personal credibility and authority When he met with the outside personal in terms of subject-matter expertise (meaning coach his firm made available to all partners, arrogant, they tend to be specialists, not generalists) this lawyer’s greatest concern was amending • often competitive and protective of their ideas, the record and clearing his good name. “I’m not people will tasks, authority, prerogatives (and, later in arrogant!” he exclaimed. “Down deep, I’m just practice, their clients) a ‘small town guy’ trying to make it in a com- relate to you petitive culture. I’ve always seen myself as kind Law school further whets the competitive of shy and eager to please. How can I correct based on their appetite for personal achievement and teaches this mistaken view of me?” lawyers-in-training to think fast, to denounce His coach replied that it mattered little perceptions, risk, to be skeptical and critical, to take nothing whether he truly was arrogant or not. “What for granted. It teaches them to analyze, test, and you intend doesn’t shape peoples’ opinions of not your question everyone about everything. It teaches you; it is the impact your behaviors have on them that “integrity” is a cardinal virtue; that is, them that determines how they view you. If intentions…” it emphasizes the importance of rational deci- you are perceived as arrogant, people will relate sions governed by universal truths, stable prin- to you based on their perceptions, not your ciples, rules and precedents, not by volatile and intentions, and turn that reality into a self-ful- variable human emotions like love, anger, anxi- filling cycle. This is called ‘confirmation bias,’ ety or the need for affiliation. and saying – to yourself or to others – ‘I don’t In short, many lawyers are not predisposed to be mean to be arrogant’ will not address the prob- collaborative, or even very friendly. They are lem.” The coach explained that a characteriza- taught to be candid, direct and authoritative. tion of arrogance is not a matter of absolute, They say things like, “I am a truth-teller, and objective truth; it’s a conclusion someone makes I’m not going to change the way I behave sim- – through their own lenses, filters and biases – ply to make someone else more comfortable.” based on one’s apparent attitudes, motivations Of course, each time a lawyer says, “I don’t suf- and behaviors. fer fools gladly,” some wounded person thinks, There’s a good reason why so many lawyers “Hey, who are you callin’ a fool?” are branded as arrogant, and it has much to do June 2006 4 Report to Legal Management
  • 2. your temperamental biases and blind It is common, both for lawyers lawyers – whether win-lose litigators spots by thinking, “I must remember that and non-lawyers, to describe these or win-win consensus builders and I have a tendency to...” Do a fast propor- lawyerly traits in ugly terms: arro- transactional lawyers – must culti- tion check by asking yourself, “Am I gant, stubborn, self-righteous, “turfy,” vate an adjustable style that works blowing things out of proportion or down- insensitive, condescending, judgmental. cross-species. playing something that’s important?” In addition, because many lawyers This does not require that one “Next,” said the coach, “before you are very smart and think very fast, in resort to situation ethics or become a open your mouth, ‘re-frame’ the situa- any given situation they always have smarmy manipulator. But it does tion. As a practical matter, fast-thinkers an opinion. Most will easily change require that one work to fine-tune can’t slow down their thinking. But they can slow down how quickly they display their thinking. Listen before “‘As professional experts’, he said, you talk. Ask questions before you make statements. Appear to reflect ‘lawyers hate to ask for personal feedback. and ponder, even if you mind is already ten miles down the road.” But any expert in self-development will tell you that candid The coach emphasized that in re- framing situations, one should first feedback is the crucial ingredient for behavioral change.’” “name the frame.” “That is,” he sug- gested, “consciously review what you think is going on here. Next – and this is difficult – make your their initial, snap judgments if given one’s emotional intelligence, that abil- assumptions conditional: ‘Is there more or better information, but it’s lit- ity to analyze the interpersonal and another way of looking at this.’ erally true: at all points in the decision- social dimensions of any interaction – Reality-test possible alternative making loop, they are opinionated. with both head and gut – with both explanations: ‘What if my opinion is Conversely, to many lawyers, rela- one’s intellect and one’s “hunch wrong?’ And recast your characteri- tionship-oriented words like tactful, machine.” One’s cumulative emotion- zations of people and events into sensitive, empathetic and collaborative al intelligence (sometimes nicknamed value-neutral terms; curb language create active revulsion. None of that EQ or EI) is made up of a group of that seems to make personal judg- “touchy-feely stuff” for them, no sir. competencies that shape professional ments, even if you think the people And gender can further cloud the and appropriate behavior with differ- you’re talking to probably agree with issue: because men are testosterone- ent kinds of people in different kinds you. It’s important not to be seen as driven dominators from Mars, and of situations. These competencies fall judgmental.” women supposedly are empathic con- into four broad categories: self-aware- “Finally,” said the coach, “re-frame sensus-builders from Venus, a woman ness; self-management; attunement to the how you communicate. The best rule displaying quick opinions, fast deci- needs/interests of others; and social, influ- here is to individualize and personalize. sions and firm principles departs encing and leadership skills. Lawyers When it comes time to talk, call peo- more visibly from the social stereo- tend to score low in the “attunement” ple by their names. Give other people types norm than a male lawyer. Hence competencies. credit (even it they don’t deserve it). the common maxim: “Behaviors that In our case study, the coach sug- Make this a conversation, not a com- are called assertive in a man are called gested to the lawyer that a practical petition or lecture. Reality-test and aggressive in a woman.” first step for addressing his arro- paraphrase constantly ‘Let me make In our case study, if the 360° gance issue was to slow down and sure I understand you correctly.…’ Ask review of the lawyer described above reflect. “It is useful to consciously for more input before communicat- had been confined to lawyers who practice ‘re-framing’ interactions ing, and, if necessary, buy some time admired his brains and candor, he with other people before speaking,” to reflect: ‘Hmm, that’s interesting. Let might not have been labeled as arro- said the coach. First re-frame your me think about that for a second.’” gant. But in today’s large firms where personal mind-set and check out Finally, the coach suggested that interdependence and collaboration your own expectations and motiva- the lawyer make a point of asking are essential, one no longer has the tions. Consider what you need and people for feedback – on both his luxury of dealing solely with crea- expect from this situation and make substance and on his style. “As pro- tures of one’s own stylistic species. sure you’re in touch with those fessional experts,” he said, “lawyers The hard truth is that today, effective underlying motives. Acknowledge continued on page 12 June 2006 5 Report to Legal Management
  • 3. Arrogance … continued from page 5 hate to ask for personal feedback. But Author’s Note: To identify and develop Report to any expert in self-development will one’s EQ competencies, try reading tell you that candid feedback is the Daniel Goleman’s Working with Legal crucial ingredient for behavioral Emotional Intelligence (Bantam change. Asking for feedback has two Books, 1998). On a lighter but enor- Management benefits. First, it may give you some mously practical note, we also recom- information that others might be mend Sisters-in-Law: An Uncensored inclined to withhold. Second, the act Guide for Women Practicing Law in published by: of asking for that feedback is a mod- the Real World, by Lisa Sherman, Altman Weil Publications, Inc. est and self-aware thing to do, some- Deborah Turchiano and Jill Schecter Two Campus Boulevard, Suite 200 thing that truly arrogant people (Sphinx, 2004). Both female and male Newtown Square, PA 19073 seldom bother with.” attorneys really should read this book. Telephone (610) 886-2000 This particular case study continues FAX (610) 359-0467 as a work in progress. The lawyer says Douglas B. Richardson is an adjunct COPYRIGHT NOTICE he thinks he’s making some changes in consultant with Altman Weil, Inc., work- Copyright © 2006 by Altman Weil Publications, his demeanor, but finds he then often ing out of the firm’s offices in Newtown Inc. Authorization to photocopy items for the inter- nal or personal use of the subscriber or the internal relapses into old patterns. Yet there are Square, Pennsylvania. Contact Mr. or personal use of specific individuals in the sub- promising signs: colleagues and clients Richardson at scriber’s organization is granted by Altman Weil are appearing more relaxed and acting Publications, Inc. provided that the source and Altman Weil Publications, Inc.’s copyright is noted less defensively. And only last week his on the reproduction and the fee of $1.00 per page is administrative assistant said to him, paid to Altman Weil Publications, Inc., Two “You know, you used to terrify me. Campus Boulevard, Suite 200, Newtown Square, PA 19073. Copying for purposes other than internal Now that I’ve gotten to know you, you or personal reference requires the express permission really are a pretty nice guy.” N of Altman Weil Publications, Inc. For permission, contact Altman Weil at the above address. June 2006 12 Report to Legal Management