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J. R. EWING, the All-American Psychopath with the Killer Instinct.

Posted By Cliff Tuttle | November 24, 2012

No. 920

Larry Hagman the actor, who recently died at 81, was primarily identified with his role as J. R. Ewing, the ruthless oilman on the prime time soap opera Dallas.  Like the classic psychopath, J. R. could put on a convincing screen of charm and guile, fooling even the viewer for a while.  But eventually, in the privacy of his office, J. R. would reflect on his misdeeds with an evil and blood curdling laugh. Hagman claimed that J. R. was a natural role for him and that he would go in and out of the role in real life without being aware of it.  Hardly  a self-compliment.

A psychopath is characterized by shallow emotion and a lack of ethical motives and conduct.  But there is a shrewdness and skilled deception that makes the psychopath dangerous.  He invites you to trust him and eventually, almost inevitably, does you in.

So then, a new book has come out entitled:“The Wisdom of Psychopaths: what Saints, Spies and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success.”  Wouldn’t you know it — according to this author, lawyers are second on the list of professions that most attract psychopaths, right after CEO’s.

However, the author, Kevin Dutton, says that’s not so bad. In the words of a Washington Post review: ” The good news, Dutton announces, is that only 1 or 2 percent of the world’s population are psychopaths.  That’s between 70 million and 140 million people who possess ‘the refrigerated heart of a ruthless glacial predator.'”

Gee, that’s so reassuring!

Dutton says that there is a whole spectrum of behavior associated with the term psychopathology and that a touch of this madness might be a good thing.  Says the Wall Street Journal review of Dutton’s book: “the Cambridge University research psychologist notes that in many circumstances, such as in business, sports and other competitive enterprises, it is beneficial to be a little charming, tough-minded, impulsive, risk-taking, courageous and even a bit socially manipulative.”

Perhaps, but such traits are exhibited in various degrees by many people who are quite normal psychologically, clearly ethical and guided by principle. As a matter of fact, Dutton’s list of  “seven deadly wins”, with the exception of the first, are characteristics that are not pathological at all.  They are: ruthlessness, charm, focus, mental toughness, fearlessness, mindfulness and action.  I’ll take the last six, thank you.  And so should we all.

And so we come to lawyers. Yes, there are lawyers who exhibit the trait of ruthlessness in varying degrees. I often hear people say that they want to hire a lawyer that is a bulldog — someone who will fight furiously against their foe. Such lawyers often make a great deal of noise.  They especially excel in bullying the helpless and making threats. The rest of us have the misfortune to have to deal with them.  But in the end, they are usually not  especially effective for their client.  The opposing lawyer is almost never cowed into submission by “Rambo tactics.” The bulldog impresses his client, but nobody else.

Then there are the snakes.  They think they are fooling you and perhaps they do for a while.  But before long their reputation becomes widely known and they lose any ability they might have had to win through trick and guile.  Once again, they impress their clients, but lawyers and judges grow tired of their antics and ultimately consider them untrustworthy.  While they survive and even prosper by acquiring fresh victims as clients, it goes without saying that snakes fail to serve their clients properly because they can only  serve themselves.

Give me an ethical lawyer with charm, focus, mental toughness, fearlessness, mindfulness and action. They exist in abundance.  But don’t give me a lawyer who thinks and acts like J. R. Ewing.



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CLIFF TUTTLE has been a Pennsylvania lawyer for over 40 years and (inter alia) is a real estate litigator and legal writer. The posts in this blog are intended to provide general information about legal topics of interest to lawyers and consumers with a Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania focus. However, this information does not constitute legal advice and there is no lawyer-client relationship created when you read this blog. You are encouraged to leave comments but be aware that posted comments can be read by others. If you wish to contact me in privacy, please use the Contact Form located immediately below this message. I will reply promptly and in strict confidence.


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