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The president of Harvard University, Lawrence Summers, recently sparked debate when he raised the question of whether biological differences could, in part, account for the under-representation of women in top academic positions in the sciences. Exploring the reasons for the presence of fewer women in any profession is necessary. However, as far as women in the legal field are concerned, Summers’ inquiry reminded me that at one time women were viewed as unfit to practice law due to their perceived innate fragility and timidity. Thankfully, no credible debate could take place today to transfer Summers’ suggestion to the legal profession. Women have more than proven to be capable of practicing law as effectively as men. Women are now almost the majority of the law school population, and a large percentage of first-year associate positions in law firms. Along with the increasing numbers of women in law firms has come greater opportunity for women to cultivate their own personal work styles to the benefit of the legal profession. When women initially became integrated into the legal profession, the “masculine” or “dominant” personality type was the most accepted trait in the legal profession, and historically, women who exhibited such “masculine” characteristics had better chances of survival. Female law students saw themselves as “less feminine,” “more confident” and having a greater need for “dominance” and “aggression,” according to a 1978 study, Women Law Students’ Descriptions of Self and the Ideal Lawyer. The same study found female law students to be more competitive with fewer tendencies toward nurturance and deference than female undergraduates. Lawyers with personality profiles lacking dominant or aggressive traits have been a rare breed in the legal profession. A self-selection process that attracts the dominant types begins before law school. Pre-law students seem to have a greater need for assuming roles of leadership and appear to be less subordinate or deferential than other pre-professional students. This self-selection process continues in law school. The chances of dropping out of law school often do not correlate with grades or LSAT scores but rather with personality traits. According to Paul Miller’s “Personality Differences and Student Survival in Law School,” law students quickly learn that direct, objective thinking, free of emotional “baggage,” is valued in law school. Those students with a need for greater emotional connection to their profession have a higher risk of dropping out of law school. Recently, however, we have seen women forge their own styles of practicing law without de-feminizing their personalities. Ironically, the very stereotypes once used to discourage females from pursuing law careers are now being considered as beneficial and necessary to practice law. For example, women are traditionally thought to be natural communicators who foster collegial work environments and interpersonal relations. Consequently, in addition to their persuasive written and oral skills, some women may be more equipped to empathize with the emotional needs of clients or find mutual ground more quickly during negotiations. Few firms can compete with optimum success if the majority of their lawyers exhibit the same personality trait. Diverse personality characteristics are important for the growth and success of every business. While dominant personalities are deemed to be decisive and direct — both positive attributes in the legal profession and business community — they can also be off-putting, offensive and less deliberate. Male and female colleagues who more naturally identify with team members and explain their rationales for reaching certain conclusions may beneficially counterbalance dominant types who might not be as skilled at interpersonal relationships. Blending into a corporation the various personality types in men and women should produce happier lawyers, ultimately leading to more productive work. So when you are doubting that there is room for your non-dominant personality in a law firm, remember that world leaders like Jimmy Carter and Abraham Lincoln are perceived to have had alternative styles of governing. Exhibiting a certain personality characteristic is not a necessity for skillful lawyering. Four female judges reminded me of this fact during a recent brown bag luncheon. When asked whether they noticed a difference in the lawyering styles of male and female litigants, the female judges failed to articulate any differences between the men and women who appeared before them in court. These female judges seemed not to favor one style over another, but only cared whether the lawyer was “prepared” before appearing in court. Lucky for us, the art of preparation is not contingent upon having a dominant personality. Natasha Kohne is an associate in the New York office of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. She can be reached at [email protected].

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