How does personality impact on the leadership potential of lawyers?

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This week, Edward Walker, director and founder of consultancy firm Anima & Atman which specialises in the development of emerging talent takes us through his findings around the link between personality and leadership potential in lawyers, using our newest assessment: the High Potential Trait Indicator (HPTI).

Most people who have worked in a law firm will agree that lawyers are ‘a bit different’, although the anecdotes offered to justify this point of view will vary – and some will be more flattering than others! There also seem to be distinct differences amongst lawyers, depending on their role within the firm and their area of legal expertise.

The partnership model, which still exists in the majority of UK law firms, works on the assumption that partners will emerge from the wider pool of lawyers and that they will possess the necessary abilities to manage complex teams, develop client relationships and provide strategic direction for the firm. This raises the question, what sets apart those lawyers who take on leadership positions from those who remain subject-matter experts?

Our research set out to investigate the influence of personality on leadership potential in lawyers and by doing so answer two related questions.

  1. Are lawyers different to other business professionals?
  2. Are certain kinds of lawyers different from one another?

Our findings indicate that the answer to both these questions is, yes. Having identified what these differences are, we also discuss the implications for the recruitment and development of lawyers.

Models of leadership potential

Our research is based on the responses of over 100 UK-based commercial lawyers and over 1500 individuals working in a variety of roles in other industry sectors. All participants were invited to complete the High Potential Trait Indicator (HPTI), a personality tool that provides insight into how well-suited an individual may be for a leadership role. 

The HPTI measures six personality traits that affect performance at work:

Conscientiousness - Those with high conscientiousness tend to be goal-oriented, self-motivated and value professional achievement. Those with lower conscientiousness tend to be more easy-going and spontaneous.

AdjustmentThose with high adjustment are calm under pressure and feel less anxiety and stress. Those with lower adjustment tend to experience more anxiety and worry.

CuriosityThose with high curiosity like novelty, learning and variety. Those with lower curiosity prefer proven methods and consistency.

Risk ApproachThose with high risk approach confront difficult situations and have difficult conversations in a reasoned and rational way. Those with lower risk approach make more instinctive or emotional decisions.

Ambiguity Acceptance - Those with high ambiguity acceptance thrive with uncertainty and complexity. Those with lower ambiguity acceptance like clear-cut answers and solutions.

Competitiveness - Those with high competitiveness enjoy positions of power, influence and recognition. Those with lower competitiveness prefer cooperation, collaboration and may dislike the spotlight.

Too much or too little of a given trait can impair leadership potential. HPTI trait scores are, therefore, classified as Low, Moderate, Optimal, or Excessive. Trait scores in the optimal zone suggest a good fit with most senior leadership positions.  Moderate traits that are close to the optimal zone may be adapted to leadership roles. Low or excessive traits can have a negative impact on leadership effectiveness in certain contexts, but may be advantageous in other roles. It is unusual for any individual to score in the optimal zone on all leadership traits, this is why different leadership styles emerge.

It is also important to note that while personality traits are relatively stable over time, some are more stable than others. Of the HPTI traits conscientiousness is the most stable and competitiveness the most likely to change over time.

Lawyer - non-lawyer differences

Our initial analysis compared the HPTI scores of lawyers and non-lawyers. Two statistically significant differences emerged. Non-lawyers on average scored higher than lawyers on measures of ambiguity acceptance and risk approach. Lawyer and non-lawyer scores on the four other trait measures were broadly comparable.

This would suggest that on average lawyers are somewhat less well-suited at handling difficult situations and coping with uncertainty than other professionals, which means they would need to adapt their natural style to a greater extent when undertaking a leadership role.

Differences amongst lawyers

Partners & non-partners

We compared the scores of lawyers currently in a partner role (28) with those in other roles (76). Two statistically significant differences emerged. Partners on average scored higher than non-partners on measures of ambiguity acceptance and risk approach. The differences in the four other trait measures were non-significant.  

This would suggest that on average partners are better-suited to handling difficult situations and coping with uncertainty than other lawyers, which means they would need to adapt their natural style less when undertaking a leadership role. Indeed, the partners’ scores on these two traits were broadly similar to non-lawyers working in other industries.

Experience

This analysis revealed no statistically significant differences in scores between lawyers of different levels of experience. Comparisons were made between: lawyers who had not yet qualified, those with 0-10 years PQE and, those with 10+ years PQE.

When looking to see if there were any interactions between gender and experience a marginally significant interaction was found. This showed that as experience levels increased risk approach scores for male lawyers fell, in contrast to female lawyers whose scores rose, such that the average scores were broadly comparable amongst male and female lawyers with 10+ years PQE. 

How can personality assessments support law firms?

Recruitment

Most law firms recruit lawyers without reference to personality testing. Although personality assessment should not be used in isolation to make selection decisions, firms may find the use of tools such as the HPTI a valuable addition to existing tests of cognitive ability and biographical data. This is particularly relevant to the recruitment of trainee solicitors, where the volume of applicants is high and it can be hard to identify candidates with leadership potential, due to their limited work experience. 

Succession planning

Personality assessments may also be a useful succession planning tool for law firm L&D teams. Use of assessments such as the HPTI could help identify individuals with leadership potential from within the existing lawyer population. These lawyers can then be offered relevant experience that will help them develop this potential e.g. secondments or involvement in board-sponsored projects. This is important as such development opportunities are often in limited supply. 

To find out more about the research please contact [email protected] and for further information about the HPTI please contact Thomas International at [email protected] or 01628 475 366.

Reuben Conibear

Reuben Conibear

Reuben has worked in the Marketing team at Thomas for just over 3 and half years. As Marketing Executive, Reuben's core focus is to ensure a high quality experience for Thomas customers at all times. In his spare time, Reuben enjoys kayaking, bouldering and spending time with his friends and family.