Don’t Hate on Your Legal Department

If you work in talent management, sooner or later you will butt heads with someone in your legal department. It most likely won’t be pleasant – sort of like playing Twister with a bullsnake. Or you might be in the legal department yourself; a refugee from the dystopian world of big, corporate law firms. Do you miss accounting for  your time in six-minute increments, 2,500 hours per year? Didn’t think so.

This week and next I will be writing about that different breed, the corporate lawyer. This is an area of specialty for me, as a researcher, teacher and coach, and it might help you in working with your company lawyers to understand they are wired a bit differently than most. But they are mostly great folks, and you wouldn’t want to work in a world without them.

First, if the lawyer you work with seems like a grump, understand it probably isn’t about you. The “pursuit of happiness” has proven elusive for many lawyers. As a profession, lawyers suffer from depression and anxiety-associated disorders at a rate much higher than the general population, including other high-stress professions such as health care or human resource management. This seems unfathomable given the relative wealth, education and prestige lawyers enjoy – factors which predict happiness in other walks of life.

Why is this? There are a lot of reasons offered, but I think the most useful for this discussion is that the personality traits of many lawyers don’t naturally mesh well with other occupational groups – sales, for example. As I have written about before, optimism, zest and social intelligence correspond with work performance and life satisfaction in most jobs. However, these traits tend to be underrepresented in lawyers as a whole. Many of the best lawyers – such as those who land jobs in big companies and firms – tend to be recruited from a relatively pessimistic and/or introverted population, and when tossed into the collaborative, “there are no bad ideas” team environment of the modern workplace stand out like alligators in a koi pond.

PLEASE STOP RIGHT NOW AND READ THE FOLLOWING – I am a lawyer, I have many lawyer relatives, most of my oldest friends are lawyers, I teach lawyers, I coach lawyers. I like lawyers – very much – and think much of the research on lawyers is out of date and empirically inadequate. Some of the happiest, funniest people I know are lawyers. Furthermore, the alleged psycho-social woes of the profession tend to be concentrated among associates in large law firms, not legal department staffers in corporate settings.

But for some in the profession, the words of the great jurist and scholar Oliver Wendell Holmes ring all too true. He writes of those moments of lawyering when “the rats gnaw from within,” and “you have felt around you a black gulf of solitude more isolating than that which surrounds the dying man.” Try that on for size at your next staff meeting as an icebreaker.

The point is that lawyers are different. They don’t say NO to your latest, greatest idea (“Hey, our corporate logo is red so let’s hire all redheads!) because they don’t like you, or just don’t understand collaboration and teamwork. It is because they are prudent and skeptical by nature. It is what drives lawyers; yes, it makes them happy to exercise their strengths of personality at work (or a discussion about workplace happiness and its relationship to personality strengths). In truth, they want to learn more about your business, be included in meetings and go to happy hour with the sales folks now and then. So rather than hating on your company lawyers (if you are so tempted now and then), give one a hug. Or a simple thank you. You might be surprised that you have made a friend – and a trusted ally.

Next week I report to you, faithful reader, live from Hawaii at the Law and Society International Conference, on what the latest research tells us about your new friends in legal and how this relates to you. As well as what frozen concoctions are popular on Waikiki beach these days among the younger set. Please come back, and aloha.