The Resilient Lawyer ProjectHow to enhance recruiting and coaching of ambitious and resilient lawyers

We have created a psychometric test that helps HR & Managers to understand individual needs to increase team efficiency by reducing stress & burnout.

Cost of associate turnover:

$315.000 or 150-200% of annual salary

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“Despite the importance of resilience for attorneys and clients, lawyers have notoriously low levels of resilience. Larry Richard, a psychologist and former trial lawyer who has studied attorney personality traits extensively, reports that 90% of attorneys score below average in resilience.”

Randall Kiser

Kiser, R. (2017). Soft skills for the effective lawyer. Cambridge University Press. Page 92.

Summary of preliminary research

1. Exhaustion

Exhaustion – i.e. early stage stress and burnout – is very unevenly distributed among business lawyers. 25% of the associates report 215% higher exhaustion than the remaining 75%.** 

Personas Full Accurate

Accurate Alex

20% of the consultant firms’ juniors fits into the profile of this persona. 

Higher risk of burnouts compared to average

Personas Full Ambitious Kim Left Square

Ambitious Kim

30% of the consultant firms’ juniors fits into the profile of this persona. 

Higher risk of burnouts compared to average

Personas Full Achieving Charlie Right Square

Achieving Charlie

30% of the consultant firms’ juniors fits into the profile of this persona. 

Lower risk of burnouts compared to average

Personas Full Bright Robin Left Square

Bright Robin

20% of the consultant firms’ juniors fits into the profile of this persona. 

Lower risk burnouts compared to average

**The data comes from an unpublished study of 250+ associates in three Swedish business law firms by Jens Näsström, which was concluded in January 2020.

2. This stress & burnout - prone minority of anxious overachievers have a trait that to a great extent explain why they rate lower on grit and resilience, leaving them more susceptible to stress and burnout

This minority tends to be maladaptive (negative) perfectionists who strive hard but often are insecure overachievers (or anxious overachievers, as they also may be termed) who have performance-based self-esteem, making them much more vulnerable to stress. The core issue is directly related to an inadequate sense of self, which is sought to be compensated for by performance. While this creates a strong drive, it also means that the individual is stress-prone and psychologically inflexible. This is the worrying kind that cannot let go of work, and that reacts disproportionately negatively to setbacks, criticism, and failures.

3. A law firm is a particularly bad setting for anxious overachievers

The organizational DNA of law firms tends to generate uncertainty amplification, which may exacerbate the latent insecurities. Below are some of the factors that drive uncertainty amplification – and thereby intensify the insecurity in these individuals.

  1. Up or out
  2. Competition for partnership
  3. Working with other successful, type-A personalities
  4. The vague nature of knowledge work makes it difficult to compare and evaluate output, which leaves the low self-esteem unquestioned
  5. Prestige with great concern for high psychological, social and economic costs if one fails
  6. Recruitment directly from law school keeps psychological maturity at a minimum and engenders greater psychological insecurity
  7. Very high demands in terms of qualitative and quantitative output
  8. Low tolerance for mistakes

4. They take greater skill and commitment to successfully lead and grow

Feedback is one of the cornerstones in talent development in law firms, as it facilitates the steep learning curve necessary to achieve success as a business lawyer. Because of the difficulties in accepting and internalizing successes, anxious overachievers tend to be uncomfortable with positive feedback; it does align well with their struggling self-esteem. On the other hand, critical feedback can leave them devastated, confirming their (exaggerated) worst fears. To lead these individuals effectively, the partner must be aware of this trait and skillfully adapt their leading style.

5. Current best practice in recruiting in law firms unwittingly selects these individuals

In law firms’ pursuit of the most ambitious candidates, this personality type is a terrific fit in the traditional recruiting profile: super motivated, competent, talented, and with a strong CV. They are difficult to identify in interviews since they – just like any other candidate – understandably tend to downplay, or not reveal at all, any vulnerability. Thus, they are, for instance, very unlikely to disclose a history of mental health issues (which a disproportionate number of them have). Thus, they are perfectionists, which fits the recruiting profile, but of a kind not well suited for a career in a law firm. The distinguishing characteristic being that as maladaptive perfectionists they consistently focus on their failings, real or (often) imagined, rather than on the effort, the top performance, itself.

6. They seek help too late, and are unwilling to accept if there is a poor fit between their job position and their psychological disposition

Because individuals with this trait are particularly uncomfortable with their shortcomings in this regard – as it is strongly linked with their poor self-esteem – they are less likely to seek help and support. They usually don’t go to HR for help until it is too late. They are risk-averse, and the very idea of leaving the firm typically fills them with dread, as it comes with significant psychological, social, and economic costs for them. This is also partly because working in the firm is a big part of their identity, of who they are, and their sense of worth. Despite their strong CV, their very low self-esteem makes them feel like fakes, and they harbour deep doubts that they will not be able to make it somewhere else. 

7. A psychometric assessment that is difficult to cheat

This assessment asks questions about ambition, making it more or less impossible to spot which ones are of a positive and negative nature. Indeed, current best practices would probably deem all items as positive by most lawyers – and yes even by many recruiters. The assessment helps management improving resilience in at the law firm.

Historically, professional services firms like McKinsey* and Goldman Sachs** have intentionally recruited insecure overachievers.

What is wrong with that strategy?

While insecure overachievers may perform quite well at the beginning of their job position, they tend to increasingly struggle as time wears on and score substantially worse on most of the key HR metrics such as:

*** M. Hill. 2011. Inside McKinsey. Financial Times, 25 November. <Source link>

** S. Mandis. 2013. What happened to Goldman Sachs: An insider’s story of organizational drift and its unintended consequences. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press. 4. M. Hill. 2011. Inside McKinsey. Financial

Some common characteristics of this trait:

  • top grades at school and excellent performance in the firm
  • hyper ambition
  • lack of grit and stress resilience
  • an exaggerated need for control (tend to be micromanagers)
  • unwilling to disclose past mental health issues (which they often have) in interviews
  • reluctant to seek help for mental health issues when they need it
  • work very hard to keep a straight face when they are genuinely struggling
  • very poor at regulating their fundamental needs and have difficulties stepping back from work to let rest and recovery regenerate them
  • poor self-esteem, which makes it difficult for them to ask for and receive feedback, even if it is positive
  • skip enjoying well-earned successes and praise
  • take setbacks, mistakes, and criticism in a bad way
  • challenging to lead because they struggle with feedback

Appendix A: Sample data from the Näsström 2020 study of associates

Doubts about mistakes
Self-doubting maladaptive perfectionism
Self-critical maladaptive perfectionism
Socially based maladaptive perfectionism
Professional efficacy
Job satisfaction
Intention to quit
Work-life balance
Leadership support

Table A. Correlations between four types of maladaptive perfectionisms and key metrics in associates.

Negative numbers indicate negative correlations. For instance, a high score on Doubts about mistakes maladaptive perfectionism is correlated with a lower score on Professional efficacy. Red numbers indicate that the outcome has been statistically validated, ‘proven’ in layman’s parlor. There are no set rules for what constitutes a strong correlation, but I would assert that anything more than 0.2 is substantial, and over 0.3 is, in my opinion, strong.

Note how strong the negative correlation is between Socially based maladaptive perfectionism and Leadership support. That is, individuals with high Socially based maladaptive perfectionism tend to rate their leaders substantially lower. Leadership in a law firm is, of course, essential, as evidenced by the next table. It seems as if these individuals are struggling more in their relationships with their leaders and experience less support.

Appendix B: Quote by Susan Daicoff

The level of pessimism found in these higher ranking law students was even more extreme than the pessimism one typically finds in people with major depression who are receiving inpatient psychiatric treatment. This is significant because pessimistic beliefs are thought to contribute to or cause depression…

Interestingly, however, of the four subscales making up the social support scale, self-esteem was the variable most associated with attorney job satisfaction. This odd finding suggests that, despite the link between satisfaction and social support, attorney job satisfaction might have more to do with internal self-esteem than with external factors.

Susan Swaim Daicoff. Lawyer

Know Thyself: A Psychological Analysis of Personality Strengths and Weaknesses