The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.
Walking past the gallery and toward the bench, your sympathetic nervous system switches into hyperalert mode. Adrenaline causes your heart to pound with an audible thud, a disoriented equilibrium makes you feel dizzy and nauseous, the larynx contracts tighter and tighter, and your mouth becomes dry and chalky. Still, you muster the courage to make the introduction: “Your honor, may it please the court.”
For many introverted attorneys, such heightened physical responses didn’t suddenly surface during their professional careers. Since childhood, these people have been cautious and reserved, social only around intimate groups, reluctant to initiate conversation, and drawn to individual-styled hobbies. Innately equipped, these introspective legal advocates provide thorough research, innovative and thoughtful legal solutions, and razor-sharp focus in their practice of the law.
However, their temperaments are significantly different from most of the general population. Eva Wisnik, using the Myers-Briggs test, interviewed 1,600 attorneys over nine years and determined that at least 60 percent were introverts as opposed to 75 percent of the general population that identified as extroverts.1 In a profession that requires cultivating professional relationships with clients, it appears that introverted attorneys might be at a disadvantage.
When selecting legal counsel, many people gravitate toward the most gregarious, made-for-TV lawyer who aligns with their extroverted temperament. Many potential clients are unaware of the excellent level of legal advocacy that introverts can provide despite a lack of bombastic fervor.
Acknowledging these difficulties, Susan Cain, in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, argues that introverts are not necessarily quiet and antisocial; they simply have a different style of engaging others. More accurately, in addition to their calm persistence, bold thinking, and insightful originality, introverted attorneys have the unique ability to “turn on” the extrovert megaphone-switch as needed. Based on extensive research, Cain presents a compelling case that the introspective/introverted temperament, when managed appropriately, can significantly accelerate a successful career.
I’ve summarized and expanded upon two important tools Cain presents to efficiently manage an introverted disposition, applying them specifically to the legal profession.
Minimize Unnecessary Stimuli When Possible
“[E]xhortations to imagine the audience in the nude don’t help nervous speakers; naked lions are just as dangerous as elegantly dressed ones.” —Susan Cain
In Quiet, Cain explains that introverts are highly reactive, thereby extremely susceptible to public-speaking anxiety. As a self-professed introvert, I am empathetic. We aren’t necessarily “afraid” of public speaking; rather, we become overwhelmed by the abundance of stimuli that ignites our innate flight response.
At my law school commencement, I was afforded the opportunity to give the conclusory remarks to our graduating class. Half of the arena was sectioned off for our event with more than 400 students, professors, and family members in attendance. Although thoroughly prepared, as I walked to the podium under the bright stadium lighting, my legs began to feel heavy; my heart raced without restraint; my temples pounded furiously; my skin tingled as an imaginary army of ants scurried over my arms and legs; the faces in the audience became a blur; and my ability to focus fluctuated. Whether before a group of four or 400, as introverts, we’ve all had similar experiences.
Still, public speaking is not limited to the Tony Robbins-types of the world. By identifying those variables that can be controlled, introverts can master public-speaking anxiety and become amazing communicators.
Over the course of my military and legal careers, I’ve adopted the following strategies to help mitigate public-speaking anxiety: (1) When possible, speak on topics that matter to you; (2) insist on advance notice for speaking events; (3) rehearse your speech aloud; (4) abstain from “pumping yourself up” beforehand—your high-reactive temperament will do well on its own; (5) avoid coffee or energy drinks; (6) arrive early; (7) eat a light snack beforehand; and (8) carry a water bottle with you for the occasional case of dry mouth.
With adequate planning, introverts can rival their extroverted counterparts during public presentations, including courtroom appearances. As a testament, having applied these mitigating tips to my graduation speech, I overcame my natural flight response and presented a well-received speech on the responsibility of legal advocates to persevere, inspire, and lead.
When Necessary, Play the Extrovert Role Without Abandoning Your True Temperament
In the legal profession, we are catapulted into the extrovert arena: consulting with clients, attending networking events, conducting presentations, and making court appearances are all necessary activities. Still, nature reminds us: A zebra can’t change its stripes.
Although Cain encourages introverts to press beyond their comfort zone, she acknowledges: “If we act out of character by convincing ourselves that our pseudo-self is real, we can eventually burn out without even knowing it.” Her advice deserves special consideration. Burnout, depression, and suicide are significantly intertwined.
Accordingly, Cain emphasizes the importance of establishing “restorative niches,” a designated time and place where introverts can retreat to recharge in a healthy environment.
Recently, my schedule has been extraordinarily chaotic, with an increased work docket, state and local bar meetings, public-speaking presentations, volunteering at community events, and more networking events than I am typically comfortable with. I’m extremely grateful for each of these opportunities. However, just a few weeks ago, my “burnout” detector started going off: bells, whistles, smoke, lights, sirens, etc. We have all grappled with the same restless feeling.
Here, the caution is bold: Many attorneys will resort to alcohol or drug use to mask the fatigue. Studies have estimated that more than 21 percent of lawyers in the United States are affected by alcohol abuse. But there are healthier and more sustainable activities that introverts can do to recharge, such as golfing, hiking, hunting, reading, gardening, baking, volunteering at an animal shelter, etc.
Nothing repairs my soul better than some South Texas coastal angling—launching out alongside my old man onto the clear flats of the Lower Laguna Madre on a brisk Saturday morning as our Shallow Sport skips past the pristine Texas sunrise. The vital step in utilizing restorative niches is to secure scheduled downtime with the same priority that you would apply to an answer-filing deadline. In complete disclosure and ignoring the cliche, scheduling time for your restorative niche is easier said than done.
Based on personal experiences and advice from veteran attorneys, retreating to a healthy restorative niche is as important to a successful legal career as mastering public speaking. Both are difficult to manage but entirely worth the efforts.
By embracing your introspective temperament and incorporating some of the tips referred to here, the extrovert arena loses much of its sting and isn’t as intimidating as first perceived. Avoiding this cloud of intimidation, we can concentrate on marketing our instinctive ability to be great listeners, precise and methodical planners, and creative legal advocates. There should be no doubts: Introverts can rival their extroverted counterparts and have extremely successful careers. It may just take some additional planning—but, for us, planning is a natural strength.
1. Eva Wisnik. “How to Get Your Attorneys to Build Client Relationships.” National Law Firm Marketing Association Metro New York Chapter Newsletter, July/Aug. 1997.
Victor A. Flores, assistant city attorney for the McAllen City Attorney’s Office, practices in municipal law and civil litigation. He is the TYLA/ABA District 25 Representative (Elect) and a member of LeadershipSBOT class of 2016 and serves on the State Bar of Texas Government Law Section Council and the Hidalgo County Bar Association Board of Directors.
Reprinted with permission of the Texas Bar Journal.