When people ask what qualities make for a good lawyer, they first mention the obvious: intelligence, ability to reason, oral and written communication skills, poise, etc. Other qualities are less tangible or quantifiable, but equally essential, such as gravitas.
What is gravitas? Ask a hundred lawyers, and you’ll probably get a hundred different answers. Yet gravitas is the sine qua non of the trial lawyer, as well as an indispensable quality for a young associate hoping to make partner. So, it’s worth exploring exactly what gravitas is, and how a career-minded professional might acquire some.
The word gravitas refers literally to “weight” or “heaviness," but, when applied figuratively to people, connotes "dignity,” “presence,” and “influence." A person with gravitas has a bearing that is substantial, yet not too imposing, and an ineffable capacity to lead others or sway opinion. In addition, organizational psychologist Rebecca Newton Ph.D. describes gravitas as the ability “to lead the room regardless of your position in the hierarchy.”
In other words, you don’t have to be the boss to have gravitas, and being the boss does not automatically confer gravitas. Dr. Newton, author of Authentic Gravitas: Who Stands Out and Why, proposes that gravitas is demonstrated when someone “provides value to others.” But what does gravitas look like in practice? To answer that question, let’s try a few examples from the legal field, both real and imagined.
In the O.J. Simpson murder trial, Johnnie Cochrane was a dynamic trial lawyer who had made his bones prosecuting high-profile police brutality lawsuits and defending tough criminal cases. He had a talent for a turn of phrase: “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”
Robert Shapiro was a mild-mannered Hollywood fixer who generally arranged plea deals and civil settlements for various celebrities. Although Shapiro started out as lead counsel for the Simpson defense, he ultimately took a back seat to Cochrane. Colleagues and opponents came to regard Shapiro as a “lightweight” who was “in over his head.” The contrast between the two attorneys was stark; Cochrane had gravitas, and Shapiro didn’t.
Fans of legal drama can point to any number of actors who portrayed lawyers with gravitas: Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird, James Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder, and Spencer Tracy in Inherit the Wind, to name a few.
In recent years, television drama has included winning portrayals of female attorneys, such as Glenn Close in Damages, Julianna Margulies and Christine Baranski in The Good Wife, and Viola Davis in How to Get Away With Murder.
To do a deeper dive into the many facets of gravitas, let’s take an iconic example of a fictional trial lawyer: Raymond Burr as Perry Mason.
There’s no doubt that Burr’s Mason had gravitas. Burr had literally been a “heavy” in numerous films, including the classic thriller, Rear Window, before he was tapped for his signature role. If we were to break down Mason’s gravitas, here are a few qualities that would immediately come to mind:
- Stature — Burr was obviously a big man, but size alone does not convey gravitas. It’s easy for a big or tall person to diminish their stature by sinking into their girth. In order to sway people to their side of an issue, bigger people tend to be more careful not to be too physically imposing as that can be off-putting and counter their intention. Burr was effortlessly commanding.
However, it is possible for smaller people to have stature when their posture is erect, and they are not trying too hard to compensate. Jack Welch, the legendary CEO of General Electric, was a shorter man with stature and gravitas. Welch was known for surrounding himself with taller subordinates, almost using them as props, to enhance his stature.
- Resonate voice — Research has shown that a deeper, more resonant voice is more persuasive on serious issues. Deeper tones convey confidence. When speakers are nervous, they tend to rise into a higher register. Higher tones are considered more playful, even comedic, and when employed in a serious situation, come off as shrill. This is true for both men and women.
- Composure — Mason tried cases where his clients’ lives were on the line, yet even when the courtroom got heated, he was unflappable.
- Confidence — Anxiety, unease, and nervousness don’t win converts, but quiet confidence is highly persuasive. However, confidence bordering on arrogance is off-putting, and can undermine even the best argument. Remarkably, Mason avoided that pitfall, given that he never lost a case.
- Concern — If you want people to care about what you have to say, first show them you care about them. Whether he was interviewing a client or examining a witness, Mason connected with their circumstances, thoughts, and feelings.
- Focus — There is a certain magnetism created when someone concentrates on an object, task, or idea. Mason’s focus was always getting at the truth. What better way to “provide value for others” than to clarify a confusing situation?
- Restraint — Mason never allowed the case to become about him. Even when he was accused of theatrics, he quickly revealed the truth he’d uncovered. Gravitas often requires economy in one’s communication and is never about attention-seeking.
Clearly, Perry Mason was a master of gravitas, but what about you? Do you have gravitas? If not, how do you get that “it” factor? Let’s refer back to Dr. Newton.
First, Dr. Newton says it’s a myth that gravitas is a natural gift. People often confuse gravitas with charisma, a quality more closely related to personality. As an example, recall that when Arnold Schwarzenegger ran for governor of California. His backers assumed he’d bring gravitas to the position. But disappointed voters found out he only had charisma.
Arnold had a rare combination of personality traits that drew people to him, but he had no influence over how members of the California legislature thought or acted. On the other hand, Dr. Newton asserts that an uncharismatic person can nevertheless have gravitas.
Also, since gravitas is not a natural gift, a person can cultivate gravitas by developing the individual elements we discussed above. Through practice, we can all improve our stature in posture, bearing, and body language. We can develop our voice, so the lower register is available when we need it, and nerves don’t propel us into a high register. We can intentionally connect with others, keep our comments concise and direct, and focus on creating value for our team.
Dr. Newton also has some insight into what we perceive as confidence. When we witness a relaxed, self-assured, focused, and well-paced presentation, we attribute that performance to confidence. However, the presenter may have been stifling butterflies, if not pterodactyls, throughout the entire performance. Thus, the presentation was more a product of courage.
No one develops confidence without stepping out of their comfort zone and taking on a daunting challenge. So, until you’ve developed a deep well of confidence, you can expect to test your courage on a regular basis. You must be willing to speak up when it’s not comfortable to do so. The fruit of courage is gravitas.
Finally, a person with gravitas does not have to be humorless. Folksy humor, sardonic wit, and even occasional self-deprecation can enhance a speaker’s gravitas. You can joke with colleagues and even opponents, if you choose the right time, place, and tone.
For in-depth instruction on developing gravitas, we recommend reading Dr. Newton’s book which contains useful pointers and effective strategies for enhancing this important quality.