“You can get help from teachers, but you are going to have to learn a lot by yourself, sitting alone in a room.” - Dr. Seuss
Regular readers of this column will note and probably be annoyed with the fact that children’s author Dr. Seuss figured prominently in last month’s column. Don’t worry, I’m moving on soon, but the above quote serves as a segue into this month’s topic—the somewhat surprising revelation that like Mr. Geisel, the majority of lawyers are introverts.
Being an introvert has become somewhat trendy in pop culture following the publication of a book by Susan Cain, herself a Harvard Law graduate and former practicing lawyer, entitled “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking.” In it she relates that the beloved Dr. Seuss was in fact an introvert who spent most of his days ensconced in a bell tower behind his California home and was afraid to meet personally with his young readership because he fretted that they would be disappointed by his reserved, decidedly un-Cat-in-the-Hat-like personality.
Dr. Seuss wasn’t an anomaly: famous and successful introverts include Albert Einstein, Rosa Parks, Bill Gates, Charles Darwin, Eleanor Roosevelt, Michael Jordan, Warren Buffett, Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama.
So what is an introvert? The pithiest explanation is that while being “social” with other people energizes an extrovert, it saps the energy of an introvert so that he or she needs solitude to recharge. To quote the author Charles Bukowski: “People drain me. I have to get away to refill.”
Cain lists fifteen signs that you may be an introvert. In the interest of space, here is an alternative list of five:
--You are content in your own company;
--You like to observe;
--You are a good listener;
--You don’t like big events; and
--You don’t rush.
It’s estimated that between one-third and one-half of the general population are introverts. So how about the lawyer population? You may be surprised to learn that it’s more like 60 percent. While that seems to run counter to the popular conception of the hard-charging, fast-talking stereotype exemplified by former Tonight Show host Johnny Carson’s running jokes about his lawyer “Bombastic Bushkin,” it makes sense when you reflect on it a bit. [Author’s note—Henry Bushkin really was Carson’s long-time personal attorney. Carson himself was a self-professed introvert, as is his fellow talk-show host David Letterman.]
Lawyering generally is focused on problem solving. That requires a great deal of solitary activity involving more reading, researching, writing and general pondering than interacting with people. When a lawyer does confer with other people, it is best to do mostly listening and cogitating before talking. Most extroverts don’t have the patience for that.
Of course, the introversion/extroversion dichotomy is a continuum, and everyone falls somewhere along the line rather than at either terminus. As Carl Jung, the psychiatrist who popularized the idea observed, someone who was either an extreme introvert or an extreme extrovert would have to be committed to a lunatic asylum.
Regular readers of this column may remember that in “On Jerks,” I alluded to the firm that first employed me out of law school, and the senior partner of said firm who I did not identify by name but described in so many words as a flamboyantly dressed eccentric. That lawyer was in fact Francis Fairley and the firm was Fairley, Hamrick, Monteith and Cobb. Last summer, I attended the funeral for one of those partners, Jim Monteith. I had occasion to speak to the two surviving partners, Dean Hamrick and Larry Cobb, Mr. Fairley having passed away some years ago. I told both of them with the utmost sincerity how much I appreciated the experience of starting out my legal career with such an interesting group of four disparate eccentrics. I’m not sure that they took that as a compliment, but I intended it to be so.
Dean Hamrick and Larry Cobb are both extroverts. Hamrick seemed to know and be well-liked by just about everybody. He could talk to anyone despite never being able to quite make eye contact (he has some sort of visual impairment that gives him the visual acuity of an astigmatic rhinoceros). He is also perhaps the gossipiest person I have ever met and would be the last to leave any local bar function that served alcohol. Cobb was a compulsive joiner, politically active in the vein of the now nearly extinct “Holshouser Republicans” (former minority leader of the North Carolina House of Representatives), civically active (Lions Club among others) and even militarily active (“Colonel Cobb” in the Air Force Reserves). He also has an acerbic wit, and sometimes referred to me as a “comm-symp” merely because at the time I was a registered Democrat. As to Fairley, the gold standard of lawyer eccentricity, I would classify him as what the French refer to as “hors categorie”—beyond category.
Jim Monteith, however, was an introvert. He was a mountain man, born in Bushnell, North Carolina, a community now covered up by the waters of Fontana Lake. I’ll go out on a limb here and speculate that he was the only Bushnell native to graduate from Harvard Law School. He had a sophisticated commercial real estate and banking practice, unusual even then for someone in a small firm. I have no idea how he developed that expertise, but assume he was self-taught.
Monteith could seem to be gruff and solitary at times, but in reality he just preferred to be with his own thoughts. I learned at his funeral about his eclectic interests outside the law, his love of reading and that he wrote stories about his childhood in Bushnell. His main social focus was his church, St. John’s Episcopal, where he served in various capacities for 40 years. His obituary stated that “He grew vegetables, roses, enjoyed woodworking and remained a student of classical and contemporary literature all his life.” What could be more emblematic of an introvert than that?
To strain for a metaphor, there are two types of rivers that flow out of the mountains of North Carolina. There’s the shallow streams that flow fast and steady. You can see straight through them from the surface to the bottom. Then there are the “pool and drop” rivers, where slow-moving deep pools are punctuated by short runs of turbulent rapids. If you’re paddling a pool and drop, you won’t be able to tell the depths of the pools and the drops may come on suddenly and without warning.
Jim Monteith was a pool and drop type of guy. For the most part, you couldn’t tell what he was thinking, but you knew he was thinking deeply. And then would come the occasional drop, which could range from an unexpected and insightful observation to a brief burst of nettlesome irritation, only to be quickly followed by a long stretch of mostly silence.
Not to be too confessional, but like Jim Monteith, I too am an introvert. While I don’t think I’ve ever taken a Myers-Briggs personality test, I’m pretty sure I’d score high on the Introversion Preference. Not quite to basement-dwelling, internet-troll standards, mind you, but still something short of “ambivert” territory, where there is a sort of equilibrium that enables one to function on both sides of the divide.
I do, however, live mostly in my head, listen more than I talk and need regular doses of solitude to cope with daily life. I’m not exactly shy (a trait often mistakenly ascribed to introverts), but have never shed a sense of social awkwardness that can come off as sullenness. That awkwardness (which reached a nadir of sheer dorkiness around ninth grade) causes me to sometimes detach from the crowd at parties or other large gatherings and to be somewhat nervous when speaking in public even after all these years of litigation practice. As is typical of introverts, I find it difficult to introduce myself to strangers and am just terrible at making small talk. I’m happy to talk to anybody about just about anything in-depth (say for example, the incidence of Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA in the modern genome), but when it comes to chatting with a group of people about their March Madness brackets, I got no game.
All of this is a constant irritant to my spouse, who is a classic extrovert. I sometimes say that the two of us are different in almost every way, except that we are both Caucasian and tall, two value-neutral and genetically determined traits over which we have no control. She thinks I’m lazy because I need my man-cave time and she bugs the hell out of me because she expects me to actually converse with her and stay constantly “doing something.” I suspect we are both being unreasonable in equal measure. Like most everything else about personal interaction, there needs to be a negotiation for extroverts and introverts to get along with one another.
Of course, the legal profession has room for both introverts and extroverts. Introverts can do “extroverted” things that require people interaction, like business development and trying cases, but we just need to summon up the effort at the front end and go off by ourselves at the back end to recover. Extroverts, on the other hand, can do that stuff naturally, but it may be at the expense of failing to put actual thought into the action. As the author Susan Cain puts it, “There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.”
The comic John Mulaney has this line about how introverts relish being alone: “In terms of, like, instant relief, canceling plans is like heroin.” One idea that has occurred to me is that we could establish a new section in the Mecklenburg County Bar for the 60 percent of our membership who are introverted lawyers. We would schedule monthly meetings, but routinely cancel them at the last minute. We’d all then have that immediate rush of avoiding a meeting so we could reclaim that hour or two for ourselves. Ahhh…one less meeting. Make my day.