The Perfect Legal Personality

by Agota Alvarez

We should not be friends, much less coworkers.

Markus is a US Marine and a colonel in the reserve JAG (US Navy Judge Advocate General) corps. He is ordered, disciplined and fit. And as the US general counsel for a large consumer products company, he has retained his love of military precision and focused planning.

Meanwhile, Bill was an intern with the Peace Corps. Then he became a teacher in rural Bolivia, living in a monastery. Now, as the global general counsel for the same consumer products company, he has retained a management style that is contemplative and holistic.

Markus and Bill are polar opposites. We are the matter and anti-matter of human personalities. If you were choosing teams, you would never put us on the same side, worried that one of us wouldn’t survive. But since we first met 14 years ago, we have worked together and thrived where others predicted conflict and chaos. Part of the reason that we do work well together is because our differences are so stark and obvious. Subtle discrepancies can be irritating but ignored. Big differences have to be acknowledged and addressed.

Our differences, and ability to work well together despite them, got us thinking about the ideal personality for an in-house lawyer. Is the perfect attorney someone who is less structured and empathetic? Or is the better counsel one who appreciates rules and order? Or is there some other ideal combination?

To try and find out, we took a test. In fact, we asked every attorney in our global legal department to take an intensive personality assessment. Then we carefully plotted and analyzed the results, looking for trends.

The results of the evaluation showed which personality traits make up the best in-house lawyer. And the outcome may surprise you.

Why personality matters

In-house lawyers, out of necessity, need a “split personality.”

At times, you have to think and act like a traditional lawyer. At other times, you must assume the perspective of a corporate executive. Most often, you have to be both.

An in-house attorney must be professionally competent, skilled in legal tactics, gifted in analytical thinking and have a robust knowledge of the law. But if you work in the corporate world, you must also exhibit high levels of business acumen, commercial orientation and process understanding.

This combination is difficult to manage and maintain. Studies show that the personality dynamics of the “typical” attorney are markedly different from those of the “typical” corporate executive (see “Lawyer versus Executive” sidebar on p. 31).

How do in-house attorneys reconcile these sometimes contradictory tendencies? There will be individuals whose natural disposition is perfectly suited for this type of environment. Most of us, however, must remain vigilant to our motives and emotions and make necessary adjustments. We all find ourselves in situations that do not play to our innate strengths, forcing us to tailor our behavior and change our tactics. If you lose your temper quickly, for example, you can modify your interactions and surroundings to lessen the impact of that fiery disposition. If you have trouble focusing on detail, you can tailor
work habits to require forced attention when detail is important. We make these adjustments all of the time.

But for the in-house lawyer, the need for self-awareness and the ability to manage responses are more challenging. Our clients’ personalities don’t always compliment our own. This ability to manage the world of conflicting personalities can be measured and even improved. Psychologists refer to it as Emotional Intelligence.

The Importance of Emotional Intelligence