I always knew I was a psychopath, it’s my best feature…

So apparently (it says here) lawyers are number two on a top ten list of professions most likely to be chock full of psychopaths.

This I can believe – to a degree. There are some pretty odd, dysfunctional, antisocial, cold-fish lawyers out there (no names), and I’m happy to subscribe to the idea that mine is a profession that is more able and willing than some to embrace the eccentric, the social misfit, the awkward, along with hose who are terminally rude and who have mad scientist hair.

Quite apart from the proposition about psychopathy that is contained in the blog post I’ve linked to above, it’s not unheard of for lawyers to speculate in only a slightly tongue in cheek way about a slightly different question, namely whether or not there is a disproportionate number of autistic lawyers – superficially at least some qualities of the excellent / successful lawyer are find parallels with some features of autistic spectrum disorders – such as the ability to focus on a piece of work to the exclusion of all else / absorb vast amounts of detail.

For sure, some of the characteristics that are essential in our profession mirror those contained in any definition of the psychopath: some of these are probably characteristics required for us to excel and some are characteristics required for us to protect ourselves and ensure our own emotional survival. I suppose one man’s professional distance is another’s psychopathy. Just as one man’s focus is another’s autism.

But… The sharing of some traits with those described in DSM Manuals as characteristics of personality disorders does not a personality disorder make. And a learnt approach such as the keeping of professional distance, is of course not at all the same as a deep rooted personality trait or aspect of one’s psychological makeup over which a person is unlikely to have much control. Plainly some lawyers take to a working life which requires the constant maintenance of professional distance / suppression of emotion like cold fish to water, whilst others consciously adopt such an approach as a means of ethical self discipline and, particularly (but not exclusively) in areas such as family law adopt these strategies to prevent emotional upset or burnout (I’m only a psychopath Monday to Friday – I’m quite nice at weekends). I’m reminded of a blogpost that I wrote some years ago which dealt with an article suggesting that in fact some family lawyers were not so well emotionally defended as they might think.

My guess would be that the bulk of family lawyers are of a different breed from the stereotype of a lawyer who is ruthless, distant and emotionless – the “shark”, if you will. At the family bar we no longer wear wigs, but most of us put on our professional persona with our suit in the mornings, and it insulates us against the effects of a diet of domestic violence, rape, abuse, neglect, baby shaking and incest. That persona of course can be professional without being entirely lacking in empathy – and whilst empathy is a key requirement for family lawyers it isn’t incompatible with professionalism.

It’s my view that it’s healthy to have to be consciously adjusting the metaphorical wig, checking to make sure it’s still in place. Just like my horsehair I’m always conscious its there, it’s hot and itchy and sometimes I’d quite like to take it off, but – as the crims say – it’s part of the uniform that helps you draw that line. Every so often the wig slips, but that’s just a healthy reminder of the need to stay just a teensy bit human.


5 thoughts on “I always knew I was a psychopath, it’s my best feature…

  1. Maybe the Court, as well as ordering psychological assessments of the parents/children in care proceedings, should also order a psychological assessment of the lawyers involved (at Legal Aid codified rates I hasten to add).

  2. Lucy, you don’t have to be a psychopath to do family law but you do have to have a very thick skin and the ability to smile even when you want to whack someone.

    Happy New Year!

  3. I have long understood it to be common knowledge that the difference between a litigation practitioner and a manipulative psychopath is that the latter can’t help doing what the former make money out of, but they both enjoy it.

  4. Grr.. one of my bug bearers – psychiatric labelling. It’s worth remembering Dr Robert Hare who devised the psychopathic checklist in common use as a diagnostic tool is on record saying the checklist is only valid if administered by a suitably qualified and experienced clinician under controlled and licensed conditions.

    On a lighter note when I was inducted to working in a psychiatric hospital I was told the difference between the patients and the rest of us was the patients wore slippers.

    • Oh no. Should I stop wearing my slippers to court then?
      But seriously, of course the diagnostic tools are only as good as the clinician who is applying them. And I’m no shrink…

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