Skip to main content

Dr. Larry Richard L’72 on Law Firm Leadership and Lawyer Well-Being in the ‘New’ Normal

Dr. Larry Richard

Law 2030 Podcast - Season 2 | Episode 2

Dr. Larry Richard Dr. Larry Richard is a graduate of Penn Law’s Class of 1972. He is the founder and principal of LawyerBrain, which supports law firm leaders in understanding how lawyer psychology impacts organizational behavior and client service. Dr. Richard practiced law as a trial attorney for ten years. He then earned a Ph.D. in Psychology from Temple University. For more than twenty years, he has been advising the world’s major law firms with a focus on resilience, change management, leadership, and talent issues.

On this episode, Dr. Richard shares his thoughts on how the pandemic has impacted attorneys and what firms should consider as they create a vision for the post-pandemic workplace.

Episode Mentions:


TedX - Building a Psychologically Safe Workplace

Ted Talk - Why Being Respectful to Your Coworkers is Good For Business

Listen on Apple Podcasts
Listen on Spotify
See More Episodes

Our Key Takeaways From This Episode

The pandemic has finally forced lawyers to come to terms with the importance of their mental health and psychology.

Our profession should continue to prioritize its understanding of these important elements of being a lawyer so it can become a more engaging pursuit in a post-COVID world.

Human beings are actually wired to work in teams and to connect socially.

It’s part of what keeps us healthy and thriving! We might be able to mitigate some of our profession’s well-being problems if we embrace more teamwork and social connection.

A hybrid work environment can actually create stress on employees.

Constantly switching between the virtual and physical worlds creates an additional cognitive load, and law firms should be mindful of this.

Follow us on social media!

Facebook logo Find us on Facebook Twitter Find us on Twitter YouTube Find us on YouTube


Full Episode Transcript

Jennifer: What makes you optimistic about the future of the legal profession?

Dr. Larry Richard: What always has made me optimistic about this profession is this profession attracts some of the brightest and most well-intentioned people that I’ve ever met. The people that go into law are people that think big. A lot of people that went into law did so because they had a noble idea that through the practice of law, I can improve society for lots of people other than just my individual clients. And I think that’s still a very strong ethic in this profession. And as long as that’s the case, I have enormous hope for the future.

Jennifer: Hi, everyone. I’m Jennifer Leonard, Chief Innovation Officer at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School. As an alum of the Law School who practiced law for a decade in private sector and government practices, I realized there are so many ways we lawyers can better serve our clients.

And now, through the Future of the Profession Initiative, my colleagues and I focus all our energy on thinking about how to do just that. Our profession is full of bright, engaged lawyers working at the highest levels, but we frustrate many of those we want to serve because of the way we’ve structured the practice of law and our legal systems. And students coming to law school today need new skills that turbocharge their legal education so they can navigate the dynamic landscape that lies ahead.

To develop fresh approaches to the way we educate lawyers and serve our clients, we need to open up the conversation. So on this podcast, we’ll hear from experts working to change the legal profession and leaders who have developed creative solutions to complex problems in other fields. We’ll also discuss how the Law School is producing the next generation of lawyers—a generation that will create new ways to put the people they serve at the center of everything they do.

There’s so much to do, so let’s get started!

Jennifer: Today, I’m excited to welcome Dr. Larry Richard. Larry is the founder and principal of LawyerBrain, which supports law firm leaders in understanding how lawyer psychology impacts organizational behavior and client service.

Larry is a graduate of Penn Law School, and he spent a decade in practice before going back to school to become a psychologist. He has spent decades studying lawyer personality and advising the world’s major law firms.

He joins us today to share his thoughts on how the pandemic has impacted attorneys and what firms should consider as they create a vision for the post-pandemic workplace.

Here’s my conversation with Dr. Larry Richard…

Jennifer: Larry, thank you for joining us today.

Dr. Larry Richard: Thank you, Jen. My pleasure.

Jennifer: Before we get started, I’d love to share a little bit of an interesting detail with the audience about you. You have developed an affinity for the saxophone relatively late in life, and you say jazz is your sanctuary. Tell me about that.

Dr. Larry Richard: Well, it actually goes back to when I was in high school, we had a fantastic jazz station in Philadelphia. Sid Mark and The Mark of Jazz. And when I was a kid, I listened to nothing but, and got the bug. So I had been a jazz fan ever since then.

But I never thought of really playing an instrument. I’ve always loved the saxophone. It’s to me, the best jazz instrument that there is. And two years ago, my wife surprised me by getting me a saxophone for my birthday. So what do you do when your wife gives you a saxophone? You have to practice. It’s really not just the most relaxing thing, but it is a lot of fun.

Jennifer: I bet it came in handy the last 14 months or so.

Dr. Larry Richard: Yeah, you bet. Although ask my neighbors.

Jennifer: There’s actually a really great This American Life episode about a saxophonist in Dublin who got stuck in lockdown next to a woman who was taking work meetings, and he was playing the Pink Panther theme song endlessly. And everybody at her office heard the Pink Panther theme constantly coming through her walls. I’ll have to send it to you.

Well, You and I have known each other for a while now. I’m really interested in your work around psychology and lawyers. And as both of us know, and as the research shows repeatedly, lawyers historically have really neglected their mental health and well-being as part of the way we develop our approach to practice. But the last year in particular, if we were slow to come around to the idea that our minds are just as important with respect to how they impact our overall health and well-being, I would think that 2020 woke us up to the idea that we really need to be taking more care of ourselves and paying more attention to what is happening to us in our minds.

So could you tell us a little bit about what you think was the most significant thing that jumped out at you around lawyers and mental health in the year 2020?

Dr. Larry Richard: Well, that’s a large question Jen, but let me see if I can tackle it in a couple of ways. The first one is I’ve studied the lawyer personality for many, many, many years. And there are certain qualities that we have in this profession that make us really good at practicing law, but the same qualities make it really challenging for us to have high levels of wellbeing. So the legal profession as I’m sure you know has elevated levels of depression, and loneliness, and substance abuse, and studies keep coming out showing alarming increases in all of these impairments.

Part of what drives those impairments is the very quality that we’re trained in law school to think like a lawyer. Thinking like a lawyer really means looking for spotting issues. And that translates into looking for the negative. What’s wrong, what could go wrong, and so forth.

And unfortunately, we now know from neuroscience and from a bunch of other studies that when you think negative thoughts, when you look for problems, you are also training your brain to get much more efficient at thinking negatively. And you’re actually atrophying the capacity to look for the good. So it predisposes us to be more vulnerable to the kinds of impairments that I mentioned. So that’s problem one. And that’s certainly got amplified in the pandemic.

The second thing is it really like you said, it really put on the radar screen in a much more central way the importance of psychology. It’s true. Very, very few lawyers are what I would call psychologically minded. They don’t really think about themselves in any psychological way. Their focus is mainly on the mission that they have trying to win a case, or trying to complete a deal, or trying to draft a document. And it’s outwardly focused in that sense.

So they don’t have a rich vocabulary and a structure, a scaffolding for thinking about the distinctions of their inner self. And that means that it gets insufficient attention. Well this pandemic has really refocused that attention and put mental health, and mental wellbeing, and everything in between on the spectrum front and center.

And it’s raised two really important issues that in the psychology world, we pay a lot of attention to. One of them is self-awareness. It’s so critical for people in general to be self-aware. But it’s absolutely indispensable for leaders to be self-aware.

Now you would think in the legal profession, I’m talking just about maybe a managing partner and an executive committee. But I propose that every partner in a law firm today is a leader. Because when you look at what leaders actually do, it’s almost exactly the same as what lawyers do. We try to set a direction in an uncertain world, and then we try to mobilize people to voluntarily follow in that direction. That’s what leaders do. And that’s what lawyers do. So self-awareness is important for leaders, and it’s vitally important for lawyers in leadership roles.

The second skill is self-regulation. How do I manage my response to these external stressors that everyone is experiencing? The main difference between people who are thriving in the pandemic the past year and the people who are languishing or even suffering is how they deal with the stressors. The stressors are identical for most of us. But our response is what varies. And if you can manage to learn how to respond well, that’s one aspect of self-regulation that I’m referring to.

Jennifer: So now, all of these law firm leaders are in the midst of a pandemic and trying to lead organizations where they’re not physically proximate to the people that they’re leading. And they were having challenges before when they were physically proximate. And we’re in a profession I would say especially in law firm world, where we tend to move in lockstep with other firms and pay attention to what everybody else is doing. And over time, there are sort of standard ways of operating that everybody follows more or less. And if there’s an outlier, they become a topic of conversation because it’s so unusual to be an outlier. Now you have an unprecedented where law firms are trying to figure out what a post-pandemic world looks like in terms of work environments.

So what kinds of things are you seeing law firm leaders do as they look toward the next phase of this experience? And are there firms that you think are taking a sound approach with respect to thinking about how their workers will work?

Dr. Larry Richard: So there’s a lot of really good science Jen about what makes a workplace a thriving place. And when we go through a pandemic, we actually put ourselves in the negative if you will. If we had a scale of how well we’re thriving, zero would be okay, “I come in, I do my job, I go home.” A plus would be, “I can’t wait to get to work.” And a minus would be, “I got to go to work again.” So people I think are in this bottom category, I don’t know if you saw the blog post from Adam Grant at the Wharton School a couple of weeks ago where he wrote about languishing. And man oh man, did this hit a nerve. I’ve never seen so many active reader responses to a blog post. He just basically described that we’re not depressed and we’re not thriving. We’re kind of languishing. We’re just going through the motions. And nobody’s feeling completely at their best. Nobody’s having the best time of their life.

And when people are languishing, our first mission as leaders is to help people get back to at least zero. But I think it should have stopped there, because the very same techniques, the very same scientific principles that get us from minus to zero are principles that can take us way past zero to a plus. So why stop there?

And what are those principles? They include things like let’s start with social connection. This is far and away the most important variable. And for lawyers, it’s an especially low-hanging fruit because we’re usually lower on social connection than other people according to my personality data. The legal profession, and there are certainly exceptions to this, but by and large, lawyers have much less interest in intimacy, vulnerability, authentic connections with people. When they hear words like that, they roll their eyeballs and they start labeling it touchy, feely. And some even look for the exit.

And this is unfortunate because the science on this has become much, much more compelling over the last decade. It’s basically that we are wired to work in groups and teams. We are wired to interact with people and to form close relationships. And that relationships are one of the strongest predictors that we have for overall wellbeing.

So the pandemic disrupted our need for connection. It also disrupted our need for control. And most importantly, it disrupted our need for predictability and continuity. So the job of leaders today in righting the languishing effects of the pandemic are we have to first restore all three of those disrupted needs.

Now that’s a challenge because the things in our environment that cause those disruptions are still going on. So does that mean we can’t restore the subjective sense of predictability, control, and connection? No, we can. And we do it kind of by fooling the brain. I hate to put it in those terms, but brains are very, very focused on attention. And if you redirect the attention of your brain away from all of the stress words that are causing the languishing, and instead let’s take predictability for example. Redirect your attention to things in your daily life that are predictable.

So my wife and I frequently go through an arboretum that’s near us. And trees are very stable. They don’t really get bent out of shape because there’s a pandemic. They’re the same today that they were a year or two ago. So there’s something very stable and predictable about nature. It goes through a cycle and you can count on that cycle. And just walking through an arboretum has that calming effect that restores the brain’s sense of predictability, and lowers the threat level in the brain’s threat circuitry.

The same thing is true with control. People had to give up control in terms of following government mandates about wearing masks, and social distancing, and all the other things that we had to do to protect ourselves, and our colleagues and friends. And high autonomy people, which is what we lawyers are, we don’t like being told what to do. I mean, nobody does, but we’re really good at not liking it.

So what do you do to restore control? Again, you look for things that you have control over, and you give people choices. So as a leader, instead of just saying, “Do X by 4:00,” you can say, “I need you to do X. Would you rather do it this way or this other way?” And it may be an illusory choice, but your brain doesn’t think it’s illusory. It gives your brain that reassuring sense of I am making some decisions myself, and I feel in control.

Now the flip side, you asked me are there firms that are exemplars, are handling this well? And the answer is yes, there are a small handful that I’ve run into. I hope there are more than just that handful, but it’s just a handful from where I sit. And these are firms that understand the things that I’ve been mentioning to you. And they’ve done these things very well. They’ve prioritized the human connection. They’ve also made it a priority to deal with the uncertainty by doubling down on clarifying expectations and goals. The clearer our expectations are with our people and the clearer goals are, the more it is reassuring and kind of restores the brain’s sense of predictability. So those are a couple of things that leaders can do.

Jennifer: And thinking of your comment that we’re all seeing each other’s lives, I can’t help but think about that BBC reporter not so long ago pre-pandemic, whose kids ran into the back of his interview with the BBC and how it went viral. And it sparked all these conversations about whether it was appropriate for the kids to be in the background. And now, that seems like another era. We’ve got pets, we’ve got spouses and kids all over the place. And I agree with you. I think this is an opportunity to really embrace some of our humanity that we have previously edited out of our lives.

But then it makes me think about the conversation around virtual work, versus in-person work, versus hybrid arrangements. And you say that hybrid arrangements can actually create psychological strain that law firm leaders may not be thinking about. They may be thinking, “This is a flexible arrangement for people, and isn’t this great we have this tech that allows us to do this?” Can you talk a little bit about some of the unintended consequences of creating a hybrid work environment?

Dr. Larry Richard: Sure. So hybrid gives and takes away. What it gives is more control. So when you have an option, I can work at home or I can work in the office, that’s advantageous and it makes our need for psychological control feel more met.

At the same time, however, it induces more cognitive strain, cognitive load. We only have a limited mental capacity. No matter how bright a person is, they can only hold onto so much at a time and pay attention to so much at a time. When we went from normal work in 2019 to the pandemic where we’re working from home, we all had to get used to using Zoom, and looking at 24 squares on a screen, and all of that. And also, there were a number of articles written over the last year about why it’s a strain just to look on the video. It’s a strain because we’re not used to seeing ourselves when we’re talking to somebody. We’re talking on the screen and, “Look, is that a blemish on my face?” Number two, when our brain sees an image of a person, it tries to glean what it can from the face. Our brains are wired, we actually have a whole region, the fusiform area of the brain that’s dedicated to recognizing faces and making sense out of them for our own wellbeing. Is it safe or not? Is this person a threat?

So when we see an image, it activates the fusiform area, and we start straining to see what we can discern. But when we’re using a video instead of being there live in person, we don’t have the highest quality. We often are not able to see the subtle facial movements, and the changes in expression, and the coloration in the face, and that sort of thing. So we’re straining. There’s more cognitive load when we’re using Zoom than when we’re in person.

After a while, human beings acclimate. So now we’ve had a year plus, a couple of months of doing this. And we’re pretty good at watching videos and making sense of them. And just when we got good at that, people were saying, “Hey, I got a new opportunity to put your brain in a new cognitive environment. How about being in the office for some of you? And when you have a meeting, you’re going to both be paying attention to live human beings and people on a video.” Well, that doubles the amount of cognitive information your brain has to process. And it processes those two sources in different ways. And there are different challenges to each source. So we’ve now doubled the cognitive load that people are going to experience, and that’s not good.

Jennifer: Well, certainly challenging environment. And speaking of cognitive load, you have given us so much to think about. And I’m wondering if I can relieve your cognitive load by telling you a little bit about what we’re doing at the law school level to prepare our students for this very challenging and complex profession.

Dr. Larry Richard: So the first question that I had Jen is it struck me for a long time as I look at my personality data, it’s really interesting how lawyers really haven’t changed. The personality traits of the lawyers that I’m seeing today that are coming out of law school do not look materially different from the profiles that I saw 25 years ago with one exception. And that is that lawyers today have lower empathy than they did 25 years ago. And that’s going in the wrong direction, because empathy, this is cognitive empathy, basically perspective taking. And it’s a very, very important trait for leadership, for business development, for forming relationships with colleagues. And it’s dropping. So that’s not a good thing.

So when I look at that data, I wonder, why are the same kinds of people coming out of law school when the demands of the workplace tell us today we need a different kind of person to be in a law firm? Not everybody needs to be different, but we need skills and technology. We need much greater skills in multicultural sophistication. We need skills in faster thinking. There’s a lot of different skills that come out, and some of them are personality related. So why aren’t law schools attracting, recruiting, bringing on people with more psychologically diverse backgrounds than has been traditional? And I don’t know if that’s fair to put that huge systemic question on your shoulders, because Penn has done a lot of innovative things. But it’s a concern that I have. And I’d love to hear if there’s some way that you guys are addressing that.

Jennifer: Sure. And I think law schools have been really much more thoughtful and intentional over the last few years than ever before in thinking about bringing to campus a rich and diverse group in every respect. With respect to different kinds of backgrounds, different kinds of undergraduate institutions.

So a few things that I think law schools are doing, I know that we’re doing at Penn to try to respond to some of the concerns that you’re raising, one is changing the nature of the essay questions on law school applications so that law schools are looking for traits like you’re talking about. Resilience, empathy, ability to take different perspective, overcoming challenges, versus maybe when you and I applied to law school, the questions were more, “Tell us about your greatest accomplishment. Tell us what you’re most proud of.” And it was purely egocentric. And now it is, “What circumstances have you thrived through and how are you taking the perspective of other people and what do you think that will help you do as a lawyer?”

I would say the other thing that law schools are doing with success is recruiting people who have much more work experience before they go to law school. So I think they have a stronger understanding of exactly who they are professionally and personally, and why they would like to add legal training to their skill set before they enter the profession. I know I was a baby when I went to law school. I think I was 21 when I started. I didn’t know anything about myself except that people told me that law school was a great thing to do, so I did it. Which is not a very intrinsically motivated way to think about the next stage of your career.

I would think that the other thing that law schools are doing and Penn is doing is expanding the types of disciplines that enter law school specifically around accepting scores from tests like the GMAT and the GRE in addition to the LSAT, to be sure that we have more STEM students coming in, more students from all different backgrounds so that they can inform one another in the classroom and challenge one another.

And then in the classroom, we’re actually teaching some of the things you’re talking about. Empathy, perspective taking, through all of our skills programs, and legal practice skills, and professional development. Things that really were not focused on at all when I was in law school and I’m sure when you were as well. So that we’re developing more, well-rounded, holistic lawyers who are focused on client service, then purely critical thinking, research writing, and advocacy. Those are certainly still the hallmarks of legal education, but we’re building on top of those hallmarks.

So I think as a profession, we still have a ways to go. But I am very encouraged by what law schools are doing. I know this is the most diverse class we’ve ever welcomed to the law school in this past year. And I think that will change the profession over time in really positive ways.

Dr. Larry Richard: Well, that’s really great to hear. I mean all of those things you mentioned sound like terrific innovations that are absolutely needed. And I hope that we can start seeing a payoff as other law schools start doing the same thing in the short term.

Jennifer: And we only have a few more moments with you, Larry. So I’d love to do a lightning round with you if you’d be game for it.

Dr. Larry Richard: Yup. Fire away.

Jennifer: Okay. So Larry, if I’m a law firm leader trying to determine what my firm’s work environment looks like post-pandemic, what is the very first step I should take?

Dr. Larry Richard: Well, I think the first step is look at self-awareness and self-regulation. Because if you have people who are languishing, it doesn’t what other work environment things you have. If you offer people things to take advantage of, and they’re languishing, they’re not going to take advantage of them. People have to be at least zero or above in order to take advantage of those things.

So it starts with ourselves. And I say leaders, put on your own oxygen mask first. Figure out how you can get to the point of thriving. That means self-awareness for yourself and self-regulation for yourself. And then when you’ve attained that place, use those same principles to help your people.

Jennifer: And as we’re putting on our oxygen masks and recognizing all of the constraints that we talked about around time, what’s one book, podcast, or TED Talk you would recommend to a law firm leader? And what’s the takeaway.

Dr. Larry Richard: Gosh, there’s so many. The first one that pops into my mind is Amy Edmondson’s TED Talk on psychological safety. It’s so important. And it’s really one of the things that drives a successful business of any sort. When people feel psychologically safe, I can be myself, I can say something that’s not popular and I won’t suffer unacceptable consequences. That really drives a thriving culture. And the lack of psychological safety makes people play to the rules, and say what they think people want to hear. And it stifles creativity and so forth. So that’s number one.

And another one that I think goes right along with that is Christine Porath at Georgetown has a wonderful TED Talk on why respect actually matters not just in an emotional or psychological way, but to the bottom line of any business. And she makes a very good case for that. And I would say there’s probably some opportunities for improvement in the amount of respect that we dole out in our law firms.

Jennifer: So Larry, if you could change one thing after all the decades that you’ve spent studying lawyers about the legal profession big or small, what would it be?

Dr. Larry Richard: Well, I think if there’s one thing I could change, it would be the thing that I mentioned earlier. Which is instead of declining empathy, let’s increase the empathy. Empathy is often thought of as kind of a touchy-feely thing. And that’s usually when people are thinking of emotional empathy. “I feel your pain.” The kind that I’m talking about is cognitive empathy. Can I shift my attention to you and take your perspective? Can I walk a mile in your shoes so that I can understand your needs? And when I say something or do something, how’s it going to land on you? That’s such a critical skill. And it’s so across the board pervasive that if I could change one thing in law firms, I would increase that.

And by the way, when people are in conflict and they get the advice you should walk a mile in the other person’s shoes, I think that’s a really good recommendation because then when the conflict happens, you’ll be a mile away and you’ll have their shoes.

Jennifer: Good point. I hadn’t thought about that before.

Jennifer: Well, we know how high you score on urgency Larry, and we are therefore particularly grateful to you for spending so much of your precious time with us today. We’re glad that you are with us to guide our profession into the next challenging, but exciting chapter of its existence. So thank you for joining us, Larry.

Dr. Larry Richard: Thank you. It’s my pleasure.

Jennifer: What an enlightening conversation with Dr. Larry Richard! Here are my key takeaways:

The pandemic has finally forced lawyers to come to terms with the importance of their mental health and psychology. Our profession should continue to prioritize its understanding of these important elements of being a lawyer so it can become a more engaging pursuit in a post-COVID world.

Also, human beings are actually wired to work in teams and to connect socially. It’s part of what keeps us healthy and thriving! We might be able to mitigate some of our profession’s well-being problems if we embrace more teamwork and social connection.

And finally, a hybrid work environment can actually create stress on employees. Constantly switching between the virtual and physical worlds creates an additional cognitive load, and law firms should be mindful of this.

Jennifer: Thanks to all of you for joining us today. We’ll see you next time on another edition of Law 2030.


Explore More Law 2030 Podcast Episodes

Sanjay Kamlani L’94 (1991 Group) on the Evolution of Innovation in Legal

Season 2. Episode 1.

Listen Now

Marion Leary (Penn Nursing) on How to Develop a Creative Mindset

Season 1. Episode 12.

Listen Now

Subscribe to our Newsletter!

Sign up to receive monthly updates on legal profession news, podcast releases, and more!