In 2019, Make Resilience Your Mantra

by Robert Fountain

 

In the spirit of “turning over a new leaf” this new year, there’s no better time to tout the benefits of a trait too often neglected by young attorneys: resilience.

Resilience is essentially the ability to “bounce back” and grow from adversity and stressful events. Given the inherent stresses of working in the legal profession—the risks of losing a case, the perpetually imposing deadlines, the temperamental clients, and the billable hour business model in general, to name just a few—it’s easy to recognize why resilience is a particularly valuable trait in lawyers. Interestingly, however, research has shown that lawyers tend to have below average resilience, which in practical terms means that lawyers “tend to be defensive, resist taking in feedback, and can be hypersensitive to criticism.”[1]

Of course, one lens through which to see the benefits of resilience is to consider the flip-side, i.e., the consequences of low resilience. Many young lawyers are unfortunately all too familiar with these consequences, which include increased risks of substance abuse,[2] burnout,[3] and mental health issues such as chronic anxiety and depression. Indeed, a groundbreaking 2016 study[4] conducted by the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation confirmed just how pervasive these problems are in our line of work, particularly for young attorneys.[5] One of several striking statistics from the 2016 study: a whopping 31.1% of junior associate respondents qualified as “problem drinkers” based on self-reported levels of alcohol consumption.[6]

In fact, it was through studying the prevalence of substance abuse, burnout, and mental health issues in the legal profession that I first encountered the concept of resilience. In a course on Innovation in the Legal Profession, I worked as part of a team to design a solution to these systemic issues based on improving resilience among young lawyers. As part of this project, our team was fortunate enough to consult Paula Davis-Laack,[7] a lawyer-turned-entrepreneur and resilience expert whose resources[8] and publications[9] I highly recommend as starting points for becoming more familiar with the benefits of resilience and strategies for becoming a more resilient attorney.

At the outset, it’s important to note that self-awareness is key to resilience. Even though young lawyers experience plenty of isolation, it can be difficult to set aside personal time for constructive self-reflection and goal-setting. Instead of the typically unrealistic New Year’s resolution, try jotting down a few short-term and medium-term personal goals—no, not the type of goals you came up with for your annual evaluation with your employer—that you believe are realistically achievable for yourself in the next year.[10] Don’t forget to consider in your goal-setting hobbies like music, art, and sports that may have gone by the wayside during the grind of law school! That’s right, go ahead and make 2019 the year you and some colleagues form a band of young associates to jam on the weekends or maybe even land a local gig; because why not?

As part of your self-assessment and goal-setting, ask yourself how you might go about becoming more resilient in the next year. If you’re in need of a launch pad for answering this question, the web is full of useful materials on resilience.[11] For example, Ms. Davis-Laack recommends cultivating your “relational energy,” i.e., “how much your interactions with others motivate, invigorate and energize, rather than drain or exhaust.”[12] In practice, this could mean focusing on building stronger working relationships with those colleagues whose energy and motivation have a particularly positive impact on your own performance. Another intriguing idea offered by Dr. Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology with years of experience studying unhappy lawyers,[13] is to focus on developing your “signature strengths,” i.e., those special skills like originality or enthusiasm that positively distinguish you from your peers.[14] Fortunately, unlike the extremely standardized processes of law school and bar licensure, the practice of law itself thrives on specialization, so keep an open mind and don’t be afraid to let your natural talents shine through in your work.

Finally, in order to become more resilient, it’s imperative that your health stays a top priority and that you take “mental breaks” to decompress during times of heightened stress.[15] Keep in mind that you are your own best advocate when it comes to your health and that it’s ultimately up to you—and not your coworkers—to set your work-life balance boundaries. On a related note, it’s much more difficult to be resilient when you’re sleep-deprived, so from a resilience perspective, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with choosing a few more hours of sleep over a social event or happy hour on a weeknight; your workload and your brain will thank you in the morning.[16]

At the end of the day, resilience is vital for young attorneys because our work is inherently stressful and its rewards often fleeting. The good news is that there are still many proven means to achieving sustainable happiness as a young lawyer.[17] Like any new skill, cultivating a resilient frame of mind takes a bit of practice,[18] but the payoffs in terms of wellbeing, productivity, and self-satisfaction are undoubtedly worth it.

Have a resilient 2019!

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[1] Larry Richard, Herding Cats: The Lawyer Personality Revealed, Report to Legal Management, Aug. 2002, at 5, http://www.managingpartnerforum.org/tasks/sites/mpf/assets/image/MPF%20-%20WEBSITE%20-%20ARTICLE%20-%20Herding%20Cats%20-%20Richards1.pdf.

[2] See Elizabeth Olson, High Rate of Problem Drinking Reported Among Lawyers, N.Y. Times, Feb. 4, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/05/business/dealbook/high-rate-of-problem-drinking-reported-among-lawyers.html?_r=0.

[3] Will Meyerhofer, Lawyer Burnout and the Finish Line Problem, Above the Law (Sept. 27, 2017), https://abovethelaw.com/2017/09/lawyer-burnout-and-the-finish-line-problem/.

[4] See P. R. Krill, R. Johnson, & L. Albert, The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys, 10 J. Addiction Med. 46–52 (2016), https://journals.lww.com/journaladdictionmedicine/Fulltext/2016/02000/The_Prevalence_of_Substance_Use_and_Other_Mental.8.aspx.

[5] James Podgers, Younger lawyers are most at risk for substance abuse and mental health problems, a new study reports, A.B.A. J., Feb. 7, 2016, http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/younger_lawyers_are_most_at_risk_for_substance_abuse_and_mental_health_prob; see also National Task Force on Lawyer Well-being, American Bar Association, The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change (Aug. 14, 2017), https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/images/abanews/ThePathToLawyerWellBeingReportRevFINAL.pdf.

[6] See Ronald D. Rotunda, How Hard-Drinking Lawyers Can Get Off the Bottle, Newsweek, Apr. 13, 2016, https://www.newsweek.com/how-hard-drinking-lawyers-can-get-bottle-alcohol-booze-447134.

[7] https://www.pauladavislaack.com/about/about-paula/.

[8] See Paula Davis-Laack, Lawyers and Resilience, https://www.pauladavislaack.com/lawyers-and-resilience/.

[9] See, e.g., Paula Davis-Laack, What Resilient Lawyers Do Differently, Forbes, Sept. 26, 2017, https://www.forbes.com/sites/pauladavislaack/2017/09/26/what-resilient-lawyers-do-differently/#2650be3c3495.

[10] See Barb Nefer, Setting Realistic Goals—And Achieving Them—Is a Good Way to Build Resilience, Webpsychology.com (Nov. 6, 2015), https://www.webpsychology.com/news/2015/11/06/setting-realistic-goals-%E2%80%93-and-achieving-them-%E2%80%93-good-way-build-resilience-241211.

[11] See, e.g., Paula Davis-Laack, Pressure Proof: Three Ways to Build Resilience, 85 Wisconsin Lawyer 6 (2012), https://www.wisbar.org/newspublications/wisconsinlawyer/pages/article.aspx?Volume=85&Issue=6&ArticleID=2382; Paula Davis-Laack, Larry Richard, & David Shearon, Four Things Resilient Lawyers Do Differently, Law Practice Today (June 14, 2016), https://www.lawpracticetoday.org/article/four-things-resilient/; Jeena Cho, 3 Ways Lawyers Can Become More Resilient, Above the Law (Feb. 29, 2016), https://abovethelaw.com/2016/02/3-ways-lawyers-can-become-more-resilient/; Paula Davis-Laack, Training Your Brain for Self-Regulation and Resilience, American Bar Association (Aug. 9, 2017), https://www.americanbar.org/groups/young_lawyers/publications/tyl/topics/professional-development/training_your_brain_selfregulation_and_resilience/.

[12] Id.

[13] See generally Martin Seligman, Paul Verkuil, & Terry Kang, Why Lawyers Are Unhappy, 10 Deakin L. Rev. 49 (2005), http://www5.austlii.edu.au/au/journals/DeakinLawRw/2005/4.html.

[14] See Martin Seligman, Why Are Lawyers So Unhappy?, Lawyers With Depression (Sept. 20, 2016), http://www.lawyerswithdepression.com/articles/why-are-lawyers-so-unhappy/.

[15] See Meg Jay, 8 Tips to Help You Become More Resilient, TED.com (Jan. 5, 2018), https://ideas.ted.com/8-tips-to-help-you-become-more-resilient/.

[16] See Rachel Cooke, “Sleep Should Be Prescribed”: What Those Late Nights Out Could Be Costing You, The Guardian, Sept. 24, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/sep/24/why-lack-of-sleep-health-worst-enemy-matthew-walker-why-we-sleep (“Reduce sleep even for a single night, and your resilience is drastically reduced.”).

[17] See Paula Davis-Laack, What Makes Lawyers Happy? It’s Not What You Think, Forbes, Dec. 19, 2017, https://www.forbes.com/sites/pauladavislaack/2017/12/19/what-makes-lawyers-happy-its-not-what-you-think/#56c4b63f17e5.

[18] https://www.americanbar.org/groups/young_lawyers/publications/tyl/topics/professional-development/training_your_brain_selfregulation_and_resilience/.

Robert Fountain is a recent Harvard Law School graduate who practices at Dallas-based insurance litigation boutique Amy Stewart Law, where he represents corporate policyholders nationwide in disputes with their insurance carriers. He can be reached at robert@amystewartlaw.com.

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