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Communication Could Be a Game-Changer

What do NFL players and the women in the legal profession have in common? If you answered that both aim for perfection and have an insatiable desire to win, you’d be right.  But that’s not the end of their commonalities. Both often have short-lived careers in their respective professions.

Many researchers and task forces have investigated the phenomenon of women opting out of the legal industry. A 2015 survey conducted by Harvard Law School’s Center observed that “even women who have achieved important career success appear to be leaving their prestigious positions — and the profession as a whole — in alarming numbers.” Although only HLS graduates participated in the survey, the data is largely consistent with the national trend.  Statistics show between 30 and 45% of women exit the legal field mid-career. 

Women aren’t the only ones departing the traditional practice of law. Men are leaving, too. Among the numerous reasons attorneys are abandoning the profession is the fact that it is an inherently adversarial system, which makes it stressful.  

Even short-lived and minor stress, the American Psychological Association reports, can have a significant impact on one’s mental and physical well-being. According to the association, acute stress can “trigger heart attacks, arrhythmias and even sudden death.” Just imagine the impact of chronic stress. I don’t have to tell you that it can wreak havoc on your body and be utterly debilitating. Studies show that long-term stress can be a major factor creating vulnerability to developing new conditions or cause existing conditions to worsen.

Many times the most exasperating aspect of being attorney, for me at least, is dealing with difficult (to put it politely) opposing counsel. You know, the kind that are demeaning, threatening and nothing less than verbally abusive. These individuals are the kind that popularized lawyer-jokes and have given the industry a bad reputation for unprofessionalism. 

It’s easy to get sucked into the vortex of opposing counsel’s incivility and engage in a tit-for-tat battle that never ends well.  But, for your own health, consider extending kindness to the undeserving lawyer.  You are not on the turf of a football field seeking to brutally tackle your rival.  You are a participant a civilized system designed to adjudicate the differences of opinion between parties.

A practical way to embrace genuine professional courtesy and minimize the stress caused by troublesome opposing counsel is to employ a interpersonal communication style known as unilateral disarmament.  This strategy, traditionally used in family relationships, involves shifting your focus from your opponent’s words and behaviors to your own. After all, the only person you can control in an argument is yourself. 

Psychology expert Lisa Firestone has condensed the theory in her article entitled “5 Simple Steps to End Any Fight.” Firestone advises individuals to first relax and not lash back. Instead, respond warmly and emphasize. Lastly, don’t be afraid to communicate how you feel.

Employing the unilateral disarmament strategy may not (and, let’s be honest, probably won’t) change your opponent.  It can, however, reduce your stress and improve your overall well-being. With less anxious and fatigued attorneys, it may also be game-changer in reversing the trend of burnt-out lawyers. 

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