Having just finished an interesting assignment helping a firm resolve conflict among its ranks, I am freshly reminded of what it is that puts lawyers into conflict and then keeps them there.  So please indulge me in this seat-of-the-pants riff (for the record, none of which, of course, applies to any of my clients).

Lawyers are on average highly conflict-averse.  Yes, you read that right.  Lawyers, who specialize in waging and also resolving conflicts, are nonetheless usually personally and deeply conflict-averse. Yet resolving conflict among lawyers is one of the top concerns of law firm managers (and the rank and file) in many firms nationwide.

What does that mean about lawyers, and even how is that possible?

You could make the gladiator point–lawyers are hired to be the ones who go into battle, whether on the corporate playing fields or in the litigation stadiums. So we probably have aggressive qualities in spades that must leak out into our interactions with each other, as well, right?

There’s some truth to that. But why then are we “conflict-averse,” when that should arguably be our preferred arena?

There’s the “unempowered” theory. We have data that many of the people who put on the mantle of law do so because they do not feel personally powerful.  This trait often manifests as aggressive competitiveness to show the world otherwise.  So we likely have some underlying underdog-type mentality to start with, with a layer of “I’ll show you” on top.

Nearly all of those same law students start law with the stated ambition of wanting to help those who are underdogs. Interesting coincidence, display of empathy or another empowerment ploy?

In any event, most of those young lawyers are thwarted in that goal because it becomes apparent that the “best” lawyers are making a lot of money working for corporate clients, not underdogs, and these same law students are, as we said, competitively trying to prove their worth. So they end up swallowing their do-good ambition and representing a powerful Fortune 500 company in the arena. This “disillusionment” factor is sometimes cited in trying to account for the profound distress levels of law students and lawyers and also the very high job dissatisfaction that a large portion of practicing lawyers register.

Then there’s the rational/emotional divide. Law schools require applicants to jump over some high hurdles in order to matriculate, but as the multi-year, extensive study by University of California Berkeley professors Schultz and Zedeck determined, the attributes applicants are tested for, and which are then reinforced during law school, are “academic skills,” it being safe to say that “the emotional side of most law students is underdeveloped.”

Some of lawyers’ attributes that we have good data on include low resilience, low sociability, a high incidence of introversion, high skepticism, high urgency and high pessimism, as well as low emotional intelligence, in nearly every case to a startling degree when compared to other professions and the population at large. These attributes mean we lawyers have trouble recovering from set backs, initiating and sustaining relationships (which in turn makes it harder to recover from setbacks), trusting others (which in turn makes it difficult for others to trust us), and being patient, all combined with little ability to recognize or manage the emotional fallout that we and the others around us are awash in.

Why care? Because, as the UC Berkeley professors and others have pointed out, this profile puts lawyers at risk not only for poor lawyering–think weak rainmaking and client service–but also for repeated conflict with colleagues, friends and family, which is then magnified by the additional distress of not having effective coping skills to draw on when the going, as it always does, particularly in law, gets really tough.

Being defensive–the art of fighting back instead of taking to heart any comments that might by some stretch of the imagination be deemed critical–is a common approach by lawyers to interpersonal interactions. The specter of criticism just touches too many nerves. Are you trying to disempower me even further than I already am? Hasn’t my aggressiveness worked to make me look imposing enough to keep you at bay? If I allow myself to entertain the possibility that I have weaknesses, how will I ever recover my confidence? Isn’t this just an exercise in stunting my chances at the career I want? What does that smile on your face mean–that you enjoy beating me up?

So, as in other sports, the best defense is a good offense. And often that offense is against another lawyer, who is, as we’ve just said, defensive, and so on down the line. “Feedback” has not resulted in any improved behavior and everyone is fuming.

So how lawyers get into personal conflict in the first place shouldn’t be such an enigma.

Two other approaches to conflict in the office that lawyers expertly use are suppression and rumination. Their objectives at the outset are opposite–the suppressor wishes to leave behind with alacrity any uncomfortable discussion or feeling, while the ruminator delves deeply into that uncomfortable space again and again, marinating in its painfulness. The suppressor prides her/himself on leaving the past behind (hastily) and moving forward (unfortunately with the monkey firmly planted on his/her back), while the ruminator is dutifully plumbing this terrible situation, over and over again, with particular attention to how s/he was unfairly treated.  These approaches have the twin disadvantages of disabling the practitioner from doing anything about the conflict and therefore also allowing the stakes to mount.

The intransigence of these conflicts make even more sense when you add that when someone gets down to actually doing something about the conflicts they are embroiled in, we lawyers have only one approach other than out-and-out combat–unlike corporate and government executives, who have demonstrated that they have three other good options.

Unskilled in the nuances of emotions, relationships, and personal empowerment, lawyers choose avoidance as their preferred course of action.  Or inaction, I guess.  If we walk past the conflict or hide out in the library during the conflict or talk about anything but the conflict, maybe it will go away, we tell ourselves–resolve itself, become irrelevant, peter out. Those mystifying angry faces or attempts to belittle or win are best ignored, because the only alternative we are schooled in is the scorched-earth firestorm. And, in fact, we don’t really want to go there, particularly when the people or principles involved are important to us or others.  While we might not truly understand why, we fear that the chances of recovering from that battle, whether the win is our’s or someone else’s, is slim.

So the conflict not only remains, but often grows, eventually metastasizing into what not only eats at the law firm, but what eventually eats it up. The “emotional labor” it takes to suppress, ruminate and defend all those emotions/threats swirling around us reduces our cognitive abilities dramatically–math abilities plunge, our language and logic decline, our ability to analyze and solve problems suffers. Over time, the wear and tear intellectually, emotionally and physically takes an enormous toll.

Eventually an exhausted partner or a once-promising but now under-performing senior associate or a prize client puzzled (or insulted) by inattentiveness picks up their respective marbles and goes away.  Or at least threatens to.

That’s when I usually get the call. It’s a fight over compensation, I’m invariably told.

But it usually isn’t.