A client calls. You pick up the phone. You don’t know what you will hear on the other end of the line, but you’re ready. On point. Focused. Listening. Well-equipped to assess and prepare for whatever scenario is headed your way.
As a successful lawyer, you’re an expert at identifying what doesn’t work. You notice the problems quickly. Question. Address. Resolve.
And, this becomes your daily mantra. An instinctive part of who you are, how you operate, and how you see your work.
Skepticism—questioning, doubting, and challenging ideas or attitudes, occurs automatically for you. You don’t need an on/off switch to get it going.
Because it’s there—ready and waiting. A product of constant nurture, attention and maturation, your skepticism is a series of neurological mechanisms that function as smoothly as well-oiled machines that (almost) never need repair.
And—to make you feel even better—your skepticism is often tied to your professional success. Because it keeps clients happy, keeps clients paying, and makes them “frequent fliers”—a lawyer’s dream.
Clients know they can count on you to think ahead, question, doubt, ask the right questions—then, run around the corner, turn back quickly and offer up a solution that makes sense.
But with all that said—here’s the real question.
If skepticism is so useful, if lawyers are outliers when it comes to skepticism (research notes lawyers score higher in skepticism than the general population, in the top 10th percentile), and if it’s a trait that’s correlated positively with professional success, why—and how—is skepticism also a lawyer’s worst enemy?
The Truth About Skepticism
I’ll set up the stage here with, of all things, a television show titled Ted Lasso.
The basic premise is this: Ted Lasso (played by Jason Sudekis) is an American college football coach who is recruited to coach a Premier League soccer team in England.
Of course, there’s a comedic catch: he’s never coached soccer before in his entire life.
Ted knows absolutely nothing about the game.
So when Ted moves to England, everyone is doggedly skeptical of him. The fans, the team manager, the players, all make it clear that they don’t want him there.
But, as the show moves on, their skepticism actually produces a blindspot, and it’s a blindspot Ted Lasso doesn’t share. This effect—that skepticism can produce very specific blindspots in our psychology—isn’t just limited to the drama of a television show.
It shows up in real life, too. And it shows up right at home—especially with lawyers. Skepticism, as a style of thinking, trains the brain in a very linear way—toward seeking problems, toward pessimism, and toward seeing the worst-case scenarios. In short: lawyers tend to see the glass “half empty.”
For them, they’re not just good at seeing the worst—they are paid and rewarded for being good at imagining the worst case scenarios.
And, as you might imagine, that can cause some downstream effects.
The Roles are Changing
These days, lawyers aren’t just lawyers. They’re now tasked with many roles.
Today, they’re mentors, supervisors, marketers, rainmakers, and committee chairs.
Skepticism, of course, works well in the legal profession.
But in these new roles, it’s the opposite—it hurts.
Imagine this scenario: it’s you (again), meeting up with your team to discuss a current case. As usual, several team members make suggestions. A discussion starts to take over.
But as the meeting goes on—you, (the leader), start to do something you might not be entirely aware of.
You start to feel there’s no value in further discussion—in fleshing out more ideas. You start questioning others’ suggestions as well as your own. You start revealing non-verbal behavior that really says one thing: I’m not interested in further discussion.
And in effect, you’ve shut the team down, you’ve made others less likely to share their ideas, you’ve made them less likely to trust meetings as a space where they can share openly, you’ve made them less likely to trust in the team in general, and you’ve cut right through the ability for your team to come up with solutions that were better than the old ones.
Why? Because your skepticism—baked psychologically in a firm foundation of pessimism—took intellectual and emotional control of the situation. And you, sitting there, didn’t notice a thing.
In these roles, mobilizing and inspiring is part of the job description. But if your psychology is only built toward noticing the bad, your relationships with your colleagues will be less than inspiring. In fact, they’re usually cutting—and this, in all the ways a negative perspective can bring people down, will begin to trickle down into the team dynamic.
Personal Lives Suffer, Too
The problem with skepticism isn’t skepticism itself. You need skepticism to understand, see, and realistically access what needs to be recalibrated.
The problem with skepticism is only when it exists without any other prevailing counterforce.
The mind, when it’s only leaning in one direction, is by definition unbalanced. And when your job is rewarded for a specific style of thinking, it makes sense that this thinking—invisible, to most—leaks into the crevices and cracks of your personal life.
In many ways, I see it all the time. Because it doesn’t just seep in. It defines.
And like any psychological blindspot, it’s difficult to see because for lawyers, it’s normal in their world. It can create difficulty in relationships—two-sided situations. Friendships, spouses, legal staff, and yes, sometimes, even clients.
A lawyer’s thinking style can, by definition, make it difficult to see another side. To see someone else’s perspective, to listen without questioning, to truly be interested in what someone else has to say. And you see this everywhere—whether a lawyer is doing something as ordinary as watching television, or at a sporting event, their thinking styles don’t leave them when they leave the office.
They carry their skepticism with them, wherever they go. Imagine: how unhealthy would it be if you were talking with someone who wants to “prove” their case at all times, poke holes in all your ideas without fully hearing them out, and do this to such a degree that the actual integrity of the relationship—between you and them—starts to flounder?
When Ted Lasso moves to England, everyone’s skeptical. But throughout the show—which uses his obliviousness to comedic effect—he’s the only one with a very interesting quality: his penchant for seeing the best in people. To see what’s good about them, to see opportunities, and to see the best in the world, even through all the skepticism, the failures, and the pain.
While I’d never tell a lawyer to let go of their skepticism completely, a healthy psychological life is founded on a good mix of both: being optimistic and open, while retaining the pessimism and skepticism that defines much of the law profession.
In a critical scene, Ted Lasso slowly shouts out Walt Whitman’s words: Be curious, not judgmental.
While our judgmental sides have their purpose, it’s the part of ourselves (especially for lawyers) that come automatically. And let’s be honest: it’s pretty easy to question and judge all day long.
But if you try adding balance to your perspective, you’ll notice that it’s possible to do both. And doing both, I think—no matter who you are—can make all the difference.