Are lawyers really like cats?

In 1998 Dr. Larry Richard, psychologist and partner at Altman Weil, investigated the personality types of lawyers and identified five common characteristics. Twenty years later, the Bucerius Center on the Legal Profession wants to find out if things have changed. Is managing lawyers really like herding cats?

Managing lawyers is like herding cats

When we think of cats, we think of inquisitive, fiercely independent, somewhat selfish, and cynical creatures (think Garfield). Interesting, but what have cats to do with lawyers? The saying “managing lawyers is like herding cats” has been around for many years (see for example Patrick McKenna and Gerald Riskin’s “Herding Cats: A handbook for Managing Partners and Practice Group Leaders”, 1995, Institute for Best Management Practices). Whereas the partnership structure should be the perfect vehicle for achieving collective goals, the challenges involved in reconciling individual and collective interests are well documented. The idea that due to the cat-like nature of lawyers it is difficult to persuade them to follow leadership direction has become embedded in the saying “managing lawyers is like herding cats”.

In 1998 Dr. Larry Richard set out to find if the saying was true. Using the Caliper Profile personality test he studied the personality traits of several hundred lawyers and found some distinct patterns which he published in 2002 in his renowned article “Herding Cats: The Lawyer Personality Revealed”. It turned out that the old saying was true, managing lawyers was indeed like herding cats.

The Five Characteristics of Lawyers

The Caliper Profile Test is a psychological test which shows a participant’s score on 18 common personality traits such as aggressiveness, empathy and risk-taking. In his study Dr Larry Richard identified five common traits which differentiated lawyers from the general public. He found that lawyers were more sceptical and had a higher sense of urgency than the general public. Furthermore, they were less sociable, less resilient and more autonomous than the general public. According to Dr. Richard, it is this combination of characteristics which makes lawyers particularly difficult to manage.

The Millennials continue to pre-occupy law firms’ HR agendas, so we wanted to find out if things had changed since 1998. A full 90-minute Caliper Profile test was not possible under the circumstances, so we asked Tomorrow’s Lawyers if they could identify themselves with the 18 Caliper Profile personality traits. So far, we have asked students from the Bucerius Law School, students attending the Bucerius International Program and Bucerius Alumni aged between 18 and 38. Let’s see what we found out…

Highly sceptical

Larry Richard discovered that lawyers are highly sceptical. From our very first day in law school, we are trained to question everything, we are disbelieving, and we subject everything to scrutiny. Whilst a degree of scepticism is essential for making good decisions, it also means that one can be suspicious of the motives of others, including work colleagues. Trust is the cornerstone of the partnership structure, albeit a fragile one, so it is concerning that lawyers have such a high degree of scepticism.

Whilst Tomorrow’s Lawyers are more sceptical than the general public, they have significantly lower levels of scepticism than lawyers in 1998. One reason could be that we tend to be more optimistic and see things in a positive light at the beginning of our careers, before we are exposed to the working world and become somewhat jaded and sceptical. Whether levels of scepticism will increase as Tomorrow’s Lawyers move through their careers remains to be seen.

A strong sense of urgency

Both our young lawyers and Larry Richard’s lawyers have strong sense of urgency, scoring higher in this category than the general public. Overall, Tomorrow’s Lawyers have a greater sense of urgency than lawyers in 1998, perhaps indicative of the fact that many are still at the beginning of their careers. A sense of urgency or inner drive is necessary to succeed in the competitive world of law, and without it who else would drive the deals forward? Too keen a sense of urgency however can manifest itself in impatience or stress when the situation does not turn out as planned. The need to drive things forward also contributes to the chronic “busyness” culture of law firms, where only the associate who bills 2,500 hours per year is considered to be a top-performer (see Ziercke and Hartung Gender Diversity in Kanzleien: Kommt da noch was? and Fix the Firm or Fix the Woman? - How the demise of the superhero myth would benefit both law firms and their clients)

Whilst cats can, and do, live in groups, they are primarily a solitary species, just like lawyers. The top Myer Briggs types found in lawyers is INTJ (Introverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Judging) so it is no surprise that Larry Richard’s lawyers have a lower sociability score than the general public. But what about Tomorrow’s Lawyers? This is where the greatest difference between the generations can be seen. Whereas Larry Richard’s lawyers had a very low score, Tomorrow’s Lawyers have a higher than average score, enjoying working and being with other people. This is borne out by earlier studies of the Bucerius Center on the Legal Profession in which we found that young lawyers preferred a collaborative working environment to the competitive one found in most law firms (see What Tomorrow’s Lawyers Want: What Law Firms Would Look Like if Generation Y were in Charge by Hartung and Ziercke).


Larry Richard’s study found that lawyers scored lower on resilience than the general public. Resilience, or ego-strength, describes the ability to accept criticism and bounce back. In their quest to achieve perfection, lawyers tend to be somewhat sensitive to criticism and react defensively to negative feedback. The combination of inner-drive and lack of resilience means that lawyers’ fear of being told their work is not up-to-scratch drives them to even higher levels of performance. This is borne out by Laura Empson’s recent study (Leading Professionals, OUP 2017) which found that some professional service firms were even explicit in their policy of recruiting “insecure over-achievers”. Interestingly, our young lawyers appear to be more robust than their predecessors. With a higher than average resilience score they have less difficulty accepting criticism and bouncing back than their predecessors.


Fiercely independent

Lawyers in 1998 scored significantly higher in this trait than the general public. Lawyers value their autonomy and independence. As a result, they are less inclined to take instructions from others. According to Larry Richard’s study, it is this resistance to being managed that contributes to the “herding cats” trait itself. What about the new generation? Tomorrow’s Lawyers are less autonomous than lawyers in 1998. In fact, they generally prefer working in organisations in which the direction is set, and as we know from previous studies (see What Tomorrow’s Lawyers Want above) they want to be represented in management decisions in such organisations.  

Are Tomorrow’s Lawyers like Cats?

Our study is still underway, so it may be too early to conclusively say whether Tomorrow’s Lawyers are like cats (if you have not yet participated you can do so here). However, based on what we know so far, and taking an in-depth look at the results from Bucerius students and international students, it is perhaps unsurprising to discover that the only characteristic from the original Larry Richard study which featured in the students’ top five characteristics was a sense of urgency.

Moreover, students felt that they were thorough, careful and had attention to detail, and that they were accommodating and could accurately sense the feelings of others. Although the students were more resilient than their predecessors, overall, resilience was not a characteristic the students strongly identified with. A similar story is true of Bucerius alumni who also felt that they could identify more with the characteristics of thoroughness, empathy and abstract reasoning.

So, are Tomorrow’s Lawyers like cats? Significantly more sociable than their predecessors, and less autonomous, Tomorrow’s Lawyers are also less insecure. Whilst they still have a healthy dose of scepticism, their sense of inner-drive is still strong. Perhaps we could say that Tomorrow’s Lawyers are less like felines and more like Homo sapiens?

This article first appeared in German on Legal Tribune Online.


Zum Blog-Archiv


Emma Ziercke & Markus Hartung


Der "Newsletter der Bucerius Law School" informiert ca. zweimonatlich über Neuigkeiten aus der Bucerius Law School und Termine.