Foxes, Hedgehogs, and Leading Dueling Lawyer Personality Types

Jack H. (Nick) McCall*
Tennessee Valley Authority
Knoxville, Tennessee

Consider, for purposes of this discussion, two very different styles—personalities, if you will—of lawyering:

Personality A is one kind of high-functioning, driven lawyer. This is the kind of lawyer who has an answer–and an argument–for everything; he feels compelled to have the last word; and he tends to govern himself as if the aphorism “The best defense is a good offense” was written with himself specifically in mind. He can come across to others as highly extroverted (more on that, shortly) and loves a good argument for argument’s sake. Litigation is often, to this breed or style of lawyer type, an opportunity to be the master (or mistress) of his (or her) domain. One lawyer of my acquaintance described his lawyer father, who might seem to be the quintessence of this personality type, in this way: “Every discussion with anyone, on any topic, is just an opportunity for my dad to present his closing argument.”

Let’s contrast this with Personality B.

Personality B is the kind of lawyer who strives to be the most complete subject-matter expert on a topic, and prefers as much as possible to come at an issue having had ample time to research, analyze, and “think, think, think” about the matter at hand. While she may not loathe off-the-cuff arguments, this is not her preferred approach to counseling. In fact, this lawyer type’s personal mantra might be: “Proper prior planning prevents poor performance”—and she strives to live up to this mantra in all situations and opportunities. “Winging it” may be occasionally necessary, but it is not her favored mode of legal expression. (In fact, she might secretly roll her eyes at lawyers who habitually do so.)

It seems highly likely that outside law as well as inside our chosen profession, each of us can think of persons who might fit these generalized descriptions more or less to a T. While they may seem stereotypical, in a general sense, these can be perceived as fitting the Extrovert (Personality A) and Introvert (Personality B) categories of the perennial Myers-Briggs personality tests. One need not delve into sociology or psychology to find another description of these two divergent kinds of souls; even the ancient Greeks recognized and pondered these distinctions.

In thinking about these characteristics, the poet Archilochus wrote: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” This idea was fleshed out by the philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin in his noted 1953 essay, “The Fox and the Hedgehog.” In Berlin’s description, for those people (and lawyers) who are foxes, their greatest powers are flexibility and openness to experience. By contrast, “hedgehogs” do not waiver, and they tend to hold few or no doubts. The fox is prudent, more pragmatic, and nuanced; hedgehogs (plot spoiler) are the polar opposite. Business writer Jim Collins also drew on these analogies in his popular book From Good to Great. Collins clearly favors hedgehogs: “All good-to-great leaders, it turns out, are hedgehogs. They know how to simplify a complex world into a single, organizing idea—the kind of basic principle that unifies, organizes, and guides all decisions.” But, not all persons/lawyers/clients are hedgehogs, and foxes are often deep, complex thinkers who delve deeply into the details—the “bug dust”—of things.

So, how does a lawyer-leader motivate a fox and a hedgehog to share a law office without driving each other crazy?

For starters, recognizing that personality types do have distinct and real differences can help. Working to find creative ways to team up the nuanced fox with an Occam’s Razor-loving hedgehog can be incredibly valuable. Moreover, we need to recognize that once one finds a way to forge a nexus between the two distinct personality types and bridges the gaps in personality, the two can forge an enormously powerful, thoughtful and creative team. Teaming foxes and hedgehogs together can be an excellent way to deter the risks of “group-think” and, in the process, cultivate a superior form of diversity of the mind.

*The opinions and viewpoints contained in the article are those of the author and are not to be imputed to his employer or the U.S. government.

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