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The science of likability and why it matters in the legal profession

smiling woman for article about the science of likeability

Many legal professionals may have the vague sense that likeability is an asset. But what exactly makes a person likable or not? Why should legal professionals care about likeability? And what can they do to become more likable?

Here we take a look at these questions from a scientific perspective.

Once you know the scientific basis for being likable, you can also take a scientific approach to increasing your likeability and advancing your career.

What makes somebody likable?

While we all can make anecdotal observations of why people are likable, there is actually some scientific basis for certain elements of likeability.

Benefits of curiosity

Research indicates that curiosity is one of the keys to likeability.

Part of the reason for this is that curious people form better connections with others, including total strangers.

In addition, curious people tend to be less aggressive and handle social rejection better — both of which lead to better relationships.

Finally, curious people simply enjoy socializing more and can become more likable by doing so. That genuine desire to discover more about people makes you more appealing and drives you to make more connections.

Perceptions of similarity

Studies show that a person’s perception of your similarity to them will tend to make you more likable to that person. In other words, you like people when you think you share things in common.

Some of the proposed reasons for this phenomenon are as follows:

  1. Consensual validation, where meeting people who share your values makes you feel validated for holding those values;
  2. Cognitive evaluation, which causes you to feel positive about this person because you feel positive about yourself; and
  3. Higher certainty of being liked by someone who is similar to you.

Other scientific bases for likeability

The Pratfall Effect is one basis for likeability that would likely not occur to many in the legal profession. This refers to the tendency for someone to be seen as more likable if they commit a minor mistake, while those perceived as “perfect” can actually be less likable.

But remember the emphasis on a minor mistake — we’re talking about spilling a cup of coffee, not blowing a court deadline.

Another factor is the phenomenon of spontaneous trait transference — the tendency for communicators to be perceived as having traits they merely describe in others.

This suggests you should be wary of speaking negatively about others, as your listeners may assume you possess the same negative traits you are attempting to pin on others. Fortunately, when you speak positively, people associate all of those positive emotions with you, too.

Why likeability matters in the legal profession

There are a host of reasons likeability should matter to lawyers and other legal professionals. Winning over judges and juries, snagging new clients, networking well, being promoted and making partner — all these are solid bases for prioritizing likeability.

But is there research that demonstrates these benefits?

In fact, research has shown that juries find likable expert witnesses to be more credible.

If this phenomenon applies to expert witnesses, there is reason to believe it also applies to trial attorneys.

Likeability also positively influences a partner’s willingness to engage in collaboration — something to keep in mind when your client is being especially difficult.

And remember what we said about curiosity being a key to likeability? It turns out there are other benefits of curiosity, such as its ability to stimulate memory and learning. Cultivating a sense of curiosity has a positive effect on both likeability and some key mental functions for practicing law at a high level. Cool, right?

How legal professionals can become more likable

There is a great deal of anecdotal experience about how to become more likable, and much of it is quite valuable.

For example, being a better listener, asking follow-up questions, and finding common ground with others are all keys to likeability. You can also try making eye contact during conversation, smiling, and showing enthusiasm.

In light of the importance of curiosity, it makes sense to focus on that aspect of your personality.

While research may not be clear on how curiosity can be enhanced, it is likely to be a trainable skill, just like generosity and empathy.

Asking open-ended questions, listening carefully to the responses, and asking follow-up questions will do more than get you information. These actions will also enhance your own curiosity and thus your likeability.

If you feel like you need a change in your overall mindset to become more curious, try techniques like meditation and journaling.

Another scientifically proven way to become more likable is to have frequent interactions with another person.

In the days of increasingly common remote work environments, it is well worth remembering that face time can go a long way. In addition, providing information about yourself can decrease the likelihood of a person’s negative stereotype affecting their perception of you.

In the arsenal of skills and traits required in the legal profession, likeability is often not one of the first to come to mind. But as we can see, there are plenty of reasons for lawyers and legal professionals to prioritize their likeability, along with research-backed methods of improving in this area.


  • Mike Robinson

    After a fifteen-year legal career in business and healthcare finance litigation, Mike Robinson now crafts compelling content that explores topics around technology, litigation, and process improvements in the legal industry.

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