The legal profession is in the middle of rapid and continuous change. Clients are spread out around the world, and firms must have a global presence and provide a global skillset. Busy lawyers, already maxed out by the general pressure and stress of the profession, are trying to keep up with practice areas that are becoming more specialized and complex. Lawyers must not only be capable legal technicians but also have business fluency, process and project management expertise, an understanding of the role technology plays in legal services delivery and be ready to solve clients’ complex problems by collaborating with other professionals in an innovative way.
Being able to adapt to this changing environment is foundational to resilience. Resilience is a person’s capacity for stress-related growth, and lawyer personality research reveals that lawyers as a population tend to be quite low in the trait. In fact, many lawyers score in the 30th percentile or lower, revealing thin-skinned tendencies, taking criticism personally, and being overly defensive and resistant to feedback. The reason for these low scores, I believe, is that the two main building blocks that build resilience, (1) thinking flexibly about challenges and framing adversity in an accurate way; and (2) developing high-quality connections with others, are frustrated by lawyers’ exceedingly high levels of skepticism (measured in the 90th percentile) and exceedingly low levels of sociability (measured in the 12th percentile).
The National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being recently recommended that one of the important things law firms and organizations can do to help build lawyer well-being is offering courses, information and workshops on developing resilience using the Army’s own resilience training as a model. I was fortunate to teach resilience skills to soldiers for more than three years, and I have been encouraged by the application of this skillset within the legal profession. Based on my work, here are five key things that resilient lawyers do differently:
1. They see resilience as a core leadership skill. Law firm talent management consultant Terri Mottershead believes that, “In the new normal, it is critical that law firms place [resilience] high on the list of “must haves” in their leadership job descriptions and support its development in emerging leaders.” In addition, Harvard law professors Scott Westfahl and David Wilkins identify resilience and cognitive reframing as important leadership and professional skills lawyers should develop. Separately, research from the Army program showed that officers with higher levels of resilience were promoted ahead of schedule, were assigned tougher tasks, and achieved the rank of a one star general faster than their low-resilience counterparts.
2. They build the type of confidence that grows resilience. Successfully navigating challenges gives you a template to manage future adversity; in fact, not experiencing any hardship actually lessens or undermines your resilience. The belief in your ability to overcome adversity and achieve your goals is called self-efficacy, simply a fancy word for the type of confidence that grows resilience. You build self-efficacy by building on small wins, through observational experiences (watching other people bounce back triggers, “I can do this too”) and by getting frequent feedback about what’s going right.
3. They cross-examine their own thinking. Lawyers spend years learning, and then practicing how to “think like a lawyer.” Professionally, lawyers are responsible for doing all of the due diligence in a matter, analyzing what could go wrong in a situation and steering their clients away from negative impact. That’s important when lawyers are engaged in the practice of law; however, when lawyers practice looking at issues through such a pessimistic, rigid lens 12-14 hours a day, that thinking style becomes harder to turn off when it’s not needed. Ultimately, it can undercut leadership capabilities, interactions with clients, staff, family and the way life is viewed generally.
Resilient lawyers cross-examine and reframe their unproductive thinking in the following ways:
- They seek to quickly understand where they have a measure of control, influence or leverage in the situation instead of wasting their time and energy on things they can’t control.
- They look for measurable and specific evidence to support the accuracy of their thoughts.
- They look for the middle ground to diffuse black-and-white or all-or-nothing thinking styles.
- They think about what they would tell a friend in the same situation (we often say things to ourselves that we wouldn’t say to a friend or family member).
4. They cultivate relational energy. Lawyers cultivate high-quality relationships by paying attention to their “relational energy.” Relational energy is how much your interactions with others motivate, invigorate and energize, rather than drain or exhaust. Not surprisingly, research showed that a person’s relational energy network predicted both job performance and job engagement better than networks based on influence or information. Recently, Microsoft revised how it works with outside law firms hoping to develop deeper relationships with outside counsel that extend beyond the billable hour. One aspect of Microsoft’s new Strategic Partner Program is to establish new networks to connect women and ethnically and racially diverse lawyers who represent the company.
5. They know the difference between perfectionism and striving for excellence. Psychologists define perfectionism as a “multidimensional personality trait characterized by striving for flawlessness and setting exceedingly high standards of performance accompanied by overly critical evaluations of one’s behavior,” and it includes a range of dimensions. Perfectionistic strivings are aspects of perfectionism that are self-oriented, internally focused and are associated with having high standards. Perfectionistic concerns are aspects of perfectionism that are outwardly-oriented, other focused and are associated with worries about making mistakes, fear of negative social evaluation and drive the thought, “What will other people think?”
Perfectionism generally can be associated with a number of negative outcomes, but it’s perfectionistic concerns that are the bigger problem. Perfectionistic concerns drive higher levels of anxiety, burnout, less healthy coping strategies and a rigid, all or nothing mindset. In addition, perfectionistic concerns are linked to defensiveness (note the link between defensiveness and low resilience mentioned above), finding fault with yourself and others (lawyers jump at the chance to spot misstatements, misspellings or flaws and see it as vitally important to correct people when they make a mistake), inflexibility, excessive need for control and not being able to trust others with your work.
As the profession continues on the path of change and as lawyers continue to try out new products, services and ways of doing business, failure will happen as a natural by-product of innovation. In order to be an impactful lawyer and an effective leader in this era of continuous change, resilience must be part of your toolkit.
Paula Davis-Laack advises law firms and teaches lawyers and law students about preventing burnout and building resilience to stress.