The Thriving Lawyer: Becoming a More Resilient Lawyer (Part 1)

After I had been practicing law for a couple of years, having successfully closed a string of complicated real estate deals, it happened.  A mega-important partner, the kind who could change your career for the better in one fell swoop, assigned a project to me!  I was both thrilled and nervous.  My task was to review a series of leases for various issues and report back.  Not too hard.  My mentor, a close friend of Mr. Partner’s, offered to help me organize my thoughts and review my work, but I declined the help thinking it was a basic lease review and I wanted to show off my legal skills to Mr. Partner without having had the benefit of help (what was I thinking?).  So, I proceeded to do what I considered to be my best work and submitted the assignment.  A few days later, Mr. Partner visited my mentor, and I thought, wow, Mr. Partner is so thrilled with my work he took time out of his day to tell my mentor what a great job I did.  Wrong!  Not only did I not do a good job, I apparently had not covered any of what Mr. Partner felt necessary or important to include in a good lease review.  I was horrified.  Immediately I wondered whether I would ever get another assignment from Mr. Partner.  Would Mr. Partner discourage his colleagues from giving me work?  Was this the end of my career?

While this failed assignment did not negatively impact my career, I clearly made mistakes that caused me stress and resulted in a shake-up of my confidence.  Many psychological, emotional, personal, and environmental factors impact how you move through your day, and resilience tools will help you manage stress, create a more sustainable pace, and generally perform better. 

Most people are able to define “resilience” as the ability to bounce back from adversity and to grow and thrive in the face of challenges, but few realize that resilience is made up of a number of different skills and abilities that can be learned, practiced, and developed.  Those skills and abilities help you deal with big life events, but also help you navigate everyday challenges.  Specifically, if resilience is a stew, these are the ingredients (the acronym is FOCUS):

Flexible and accurate thinking.  Developing a style of thinking that draws upon accuracyand evidence to create desirable reactions to different life challenges is key to resilience.  Research by Drs. Albert Ellis, Aaron Beck, and Martin Seligman shows that it’s not what happens to you that causes you to feel the way you feel, it’s your thought process.

Optimism.  Optimism is one of the most heavily researched areas of social science and tends to mean particular things to lawyers, who are generally trained to be somewhat pessimistic.  Compared to pessimists, optimists are happier and have less depression, are seen as better leaders, have stronger relationships, and perform better under pressure.  A person may be seen as optimistic or pessimistic based on how she describes the causes of good and bad life events.  For example, a pessimistic attorney tends to view herself as the sole cause of negative work and life events, expects that those events will impact lots of different areas of life, and thinks that those events will be permanent.  A pessimist sees good events as caused by others, temporary, and subject to change.       

Connecting to other people.  Building strong relationships, knowing when to use positive and effective communication, being able to ask for help, and supporting others is critical to resilience.  Had I been willing to take my mentor up on his offer of help, my first encounter with Mr. Partner would have been a much better experience.  One big resilience myth is that a resilient person handles everything on her own.  How many times do you say “I’ve got it” or “I can handle it” when you could benefit from a little help? 

Understanding the big picture.  Having the ability to connect to some type of meaning and purpose in your career is critical to resilience.  One of the big reasons why I ran out of steam as a lawyer was that I focused on money over meaning and had shifted to a more extrinsic set of values.  Being able to tap into the bigger picture of why you’re doing what you’re doing (both individually and as a firm) will help you steer through tough times.

Self.  This element is a combination of self-care, self-efficacy, self-awareness, and self-regulation.  Resilient people know when to pause and take a timeout; they know how to develop the confidence needed to pursue their goals and take risks; they are open and curious and can identify patterns in thinking and behavior; and they know how to control their impulses and express emotions appropriately.  Contrary to popular belief, resilient people aren’t always fully composed and stoic.  They know that sometimes resilience isn’t pretty and they know how and when to show their emotion.

Resilience is not a “you have it or you don’t have it” type of thing.  Dr. Larry Richard’s research shows that lawyers are not a resilient bunch, falling generally in the 30th percentile, but often in the 10th percentile or lower.  Resilience skills can be developed and practiced, and a discussion of some of those skills will be the focus of my March column.


Masten, A.S., & O’Doughtery, M. (2010). Resilience over the lifespan: Developmental perspectives on resistance, recovery, and transformation.  In J.W. Reich, A.J. Zautra, & J.S. Hall (Eds.), Handbook of Adult Resilience (pp. 213-237). New York: The Guilford Press.

Richard, L. (2008).  Herding cats: The lawyer personality revealed.  LAWPRO Magazine, 7.  Retrieved December 20, 2010, from

Seligman, M.E.P. (1990). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life.  New York: Random House.



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