(Shutterstock)

Dominance, inducement, submission and compliance. Those are the personality traits that Miles & Stockbridge sought to track through a personality test that it administered to about 30 of its leaders in 2014.

The test, called DiSC—short for those four traits—is a behavioral assessment tool that Miles & Stockbridge chairman John Frisch calls “really eye-opening.” The leaders of the 236-lawyer, Baltimore-based firm learned that their ranks included partners who were more process-oriented, some who were analytical and others who were more intuitive. Using those insights, Miles & Stockbridge partners started to change their communication and behavior. For colleagues who have a more abrupt style of communication, Frisch says he now simply leans into their office for a three- to four-sentence conversation about things that needed to be done.

Other partners respond better to a different approach. “There are others who have a much more processed way that they look at the world, and I’ll come in and sit down and spend 20 minutes or a half an hour,” Frisch says.

DiSC is just one type of personality assessment that seeks to uncover why people behave and interact the way they do. Such tests have grown in popularity among private employers to make hiring decisions and improve retention: Eight out of the top 10 U.S. private employers use assessments for their job applicants, according to a report by The Wall Street Journal. They’re still rarely used in the legal industry, however. “As a practical matter, I don’t think associates would like [personality assessment] and would see it as an invasion of privacy,” says Kathleen Massey, managing partner of Dechert’s New York office. “Could it be interesting and beneficial? Yes. Is it practical? No.”

However, some legal recruiters, including Adam Weiss, who is also author of “The Lateral Lawyer,” argue that the legal profession needs all the help it can get when it comes to recruiting effectively. “How many lateral hires end up being disappointing? This might be something that would be worth considering,” Weiss says. A few firms are making bets that they can make better hires from understanding what makes a lawyer a lawyer.

For the past two years, Koley Jessen, an Omaha-based firm with about 70 attorneys, has relied on The Right Profile, a Chicago-based talent analytics firm, to run an online psychological test to help place summer associates within the right practice groups. “Decisions on hiring and placement in practice groups are not being based solely on the [test], but we are using it to help inform our conclusions and decisions,” says Shaun McGaughey, Koley’s managing partner.

Last summer, Koley had its nine summer associates complete The Right Profile’s assessment. Of the four third-year law students among those nine, all have accepted offers to become associates at the firm next fall, McGaughey says.

“I think there’s a lot of science that can be used more effectively by our firm and other law firms to reach a better fit for those entering their law firms—that has to help in long- term retention,” McGaughey says of the assessment his firm used. “That’s the long-term benefit that we’re looking for.”

Co-founded by Mark Levin, a lawyer and former chief marketing officer at Chicago-based Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg, The Right Profile combined the Sheffield Legal Assessment, the first online legal assessment specifically built for the legal profession, with its own set of analytics gathered in an 18-month study. (The Right Profile has also been used by the National Football League, Major League Baseball and collegiate athletic programs.) The company surveyed 3,000 legal professionals regarding their personalities, attitudes and work satisfaction to isolate 22 different attorney traits.

Levin’s test seeks to uncover the intangibles of an attorney’s mental makeup, like personal drive or emotional intelligence, that are often hidden during one-on-one interviews. By understanding those intangibles, firms can make better hiring and placement decisions that could lead to lower attrition rates, Levin says. (You can take The Right Profile’s Attorney Assessment for free through March 31 by clicking here.)

“All of this boils down to how do you get an attorney to be their highest and best within their career,” Levin says. “If we can guide people towards what might be a good fit in that first or second [practice area choice], we know they’re going to have a better chance at a really happy career.”

Those taking the assessment are shown how they match up against lawyer personality traits generally—and the traits that lawyers at a specific firm display. The assessment also shows which potential practice areas would best suit them, based on their profile.

For example, Levin says, personal injury lawyers tend to be more self-assured and collaborative. Bankruptcy attorneys are the most pessimistic out of any practice group, according to Right Profile data—but are also the highest in empathy, curiosity and logical decision-making. Trusts and estates attorneys are the most introverted, with low preferences for teamwork and problem-solving. Mergers and acquisitions attorneys prefer straightforward solutions but they are more comfortable with risk than any other lawyer group that was assessed in the study.

Levin’s assessment isn’t the first to try to describe a “lawyer personality.” Since the 1990s, Larry Richard, a lawyer-psychologist who runs the consulting firm LawyerBrain LLC, and others have looked into lawyer-personality particulars to help firms manage and retain talent.

“In the last 20 years, thanks to the marriage of neuroscience and psychology, psychology has really become a hard science, and there’s a lot of really solid, reliable, actionable information that we have about human behavior,” Richard says.

In 1993, Richard conducted a study in which more than 3,000 lawyers completed the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or MBTI. Developed in the 1940s, the MBTI measures different personality styles on four scales: extraversion v. introversion (where people derive their energy from); sensing v. intuition (how people perceive the world around them); thinking v. feeling (how people assess information and make decisions); judging v. perceiving (people’s attitudes toward finality and closure).

Richard found in his study that certain personality types gravitate toward certain practice areas. Extroverts, who prefer to focus their awareness and mental stimulation outward, tend to favor labor law. Introverts, who primarily gain stimulation and awareness from within themselves, chose to practice tax and real estate law.

Lawyers with a strong sensing preference, whose focus is on facts and data, favor tax, real estate and general practice. Those with a more intuitive preference, whose focus tends to be on the meanings behind the data, chose litigation, labor and criminal law.

In another study in 2008, Richard found that lawyers share the same six traits that set them dramatically apart from the general population. Lawyers tend to be skeptical and “urgent,” or results-oriented. They need autonomy and are abstract reasoners, but they aren’t very sociable or resilient, Richard found. Those traits, he concluded, can work toward—and against—a lawyer’s success.

Take skepticism, which can help litigators undermine their adversary’s assertions or allow tax lawyers to develop creative ways to navigate the tax code. Skepticism becomes a problem, Richard says, when law firm partners have to generate consensus around growth or strategies. Urgent people tend to be poor listeners, which can be frustrating in a mentoring or managerial relationship, Richard explains.

Richard also found that lawyers overwhelmingly prefer having freedom of choice in their work, and enjoy analyzing, mental stimulation and problem-solving. The lowest lawyers’ scores came in sociability and resiliency. Low scorers in sociability are not necessarily antisocial, Richard says: They may find it uncomfortable to develop intimate relationships. Low scorers in resiliency tend to be defensive, resistant to feedback and hypersensitive to criticism, Richard says.

Through effective use of profile testing, Richard argues, lawyers within a firm “can more consciously build a firm culture, evolve a clearer market strategy, hire more intelligently, and cultivate business development in a more sensible fashion than requiring every partner to become a rainmaker.”

But ironically, the traits that distinguish lawyers may also make them more resistent to using personality testing to inform hiring or management decisions, Richards says.

“They see it as touchy-feely and navel gazing,” he says. “I think there’s a built-in bias in the legal profession, partly because of the combination of high abstract reasoning and low sociability, that makes [lawyers] really disinterested in psychology and introspection.”