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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    March 01, 2014

    On Balance
    Think This Way and That Way: Developing Mental Resilience in the Law

    Most law schools train students to “think like a lawyer,” a cognitive style that lacks flexibility and promotes pessimism. Learn here how to develop additional thinking skills that will make you a happier and more effective advocate.

    Paula Davis-Laack

    flowers in snowWhen I entered law school more than a decade ago, I knew I would learn how to think like a lawyer. Intuitively, I knew that meant that I would be able to think with care and precision, distinguish good arguments from bad, and analyze the facts and evidence presented in a case. At the time, thinking like a lawyer didn’t really seem to have a downside; in fact, without it, I didn’t see how I was going to be effective in my law practice.

    Although having the ability to think like a lawyer is a critical skill for lawyers to possess, I now know that there is more to the story. The thinking-like-a-lawyer style of thinking is “an emotionally isolating analytical process,”1 rigid, fact-based, and for me, an unnatural way to think. According to noted researcher and lawyer Lawrence Krieger, “thinking like a lawyer is fundamentally negative; it is critical, pessimistic, and depersonalizing … which is usually conveyed, and understood [in law school], as a new and superior way of thinking, rather than an important but strictly limited legal tool.”2

    Before long, not only was I becoming a skilled legal thinker but also I was becoming really good at poking holes in and analyzing conversations with my husband, my parents, and my friends. While I felt great about being able to “win” more arguments with my family and friends, I no doubt left them wondering why every conversation was becoming an argument or something to be analyzed.

    Thinking like a lawyer is a great tool for legal analysis, but it doesn’t always lead to positive outcomes when lawyers interact with people who are not trained in the same style of thinking, such as staff, clients, and family members. Further, thinking like a lawyer is inherently pessimistic, and the effects of pessimistic thinking have been studied for decades. Research shows that having a rigid, pessimistic thinking style can lead to many unwanted consequences. Pessimistic thinkers are more at risk for depression,3 are more likely to give up in the face of challenge,4 and get sick more frequently.5

    Specifically, pessimistic thinkers think about setbacks and challenges in a permanent and pervasive way. For example, a lawyer with a pessimistic thinking style might think this about a setback or a challenge: “It’s going to last forever, it’s going to undermine lots of areas of my life, and there’s not much I can do about it.” Conversely, a lawyer with an optimistic thinking style might think this about the same challenge: “It’s going to go away at some point, I can do something about it, and it’s going to impact just this one part of my life.”6

    Even though lawyers are trained to think in a fact-based, rigid, and pessimistic way, they are also trained to be naturally skilled at ways to be more flexible and accurate in their thinking, as you’ll see below. Having a flexible and accurate thinking style is one benchmark of resilience. Below are five science-based ways for you to build your mental toughness and psychological resilience so you can perform at your best.

    Be Your Own Lawyer

    Take your evidence-gathering and analytical training and apply it to your thinking. Here are four areas to explore when counterproductive thinking gets in your way:7

    Look for Evidence. If you have a counterproductive thought, look for specific and measurable evidence that disproves your thinking. For example, if your counterproductive thought is: “Wow, this is a tough case - I don’t think I’m going to be very effective,” then fight that thought by recalling the number of court cases you’ve won, the number of clients you’ve helped, or the number of hours you’ve spent in court trying cases. Take note, though, that this is not the most effective strategy for the first time you’re doing something. Why? You might not have any evidence to draw upon, which will only further reinforce your counterproductive thinking.

    Paula Davis-LaackPaula Davis-Laack, Marquette 2002, MAPP, is the founder and CEO of the Davis Laack Stress and Resilience Institute, an organization that educates, coaches, and trains attorneys and professionals about how to better manage stress, prevent burnout, and build resilience. She is the author of a newly published e-book titled, 10 Things Happy People Do Differently..

    Generate Alternative Explanations. This helps you reframe your thinking and gain perspective. Ask yourself whether there is another way to look at the issue that you haven’t yet considered.

    Think About Impact. Analyze the impact your counterproductive thoughts are having in your life. A coaching client of mine found that his procrastination was leading him to turn in assignments late. When we dug deeper, he realized that he often thought, “I don’t measure up” when working on certain types of projects. This counterproductive thinking was having a negative effect on his career, but once he understood his thinking, he could proceed in a different, more confident manner.

    Add Distance. What would you tell a friend, a significant other, or your child if he or she were struggling? For example, if you finish a long contract negotiation and don’t get the best result for your client, you might think, “I’m such an idiot!” But, would you be so harsh to a close friend or family member going through a tough challenge? Probably not.

    Balance Your Thinking and Stop Catastrophizing

    This style of thinking happens when your brain spins a worst-case story from an event, and your body reacts by thinking it’s really happening. This produces high levels of anxiety, and you stop taking purposeful action. As one of my professors, Dr. Karen Reivich, says, “It’s making a mountain out of a molehill or a Himalaya out of a mountain.”

    You are more likely to catastrophize when you’re stressed out or tired, doing something for the first time (for example, closing your first deal; going to court for the first time), redoing something you did poorly the first time (for example, rewriting a brief for a partner), or the situation is vague (for example, you get an email that says, “Come see me now”). Fortunately, there is an easy five-step process to stop catastrophizing:

    1. Describe the stress-producing event factually.
    2. Write down all the worst-case-scenario thoughts you’re having.
    3. Create a best-case scenario (which you’ll have to completely make up so you can create a surge of positive emotion to lower your anxiety).
    4. Analyze the most likely scenario.
    5. Develop a plan to address the most likely scenario.8

    Write it Out

    Psychologist James Pennebaker has spent many years studying the effects of writing about stressful life events. He and his colleagues have repeatedly shown that people who write about life stressors report fewer illness-related symptoms.9 In addition, writing about what’s worrying you before a presentation has been shown to prevent choking (defined as suboptimal performance based on your perception that the situation is highly stressful).10 Expressive writing also has been shown to reduce negative thinking, freeing up your brain to focus on more important matters.11

    Think About Moments of Success

    I recently gave a talk that my parents and my husband attended. While I have presented many times, this was the first time that close family members were present. No matter how seasoned a professional you are, it can be distracting to look out in the audience and see your parents and your spouse. Rather than thinking of myself as Bob and Trish’s daughter or Tom’s wife, I immediately thought about the many successful resilience trainings I’ve taught. Why? According to Dr. Sian Beilock, “Getting people to think about aspects of themselves that are conducive to success can be enough to propel them to a top performance and prevent ‘choking.’”12

    Train Your Brain to Perform Under Pressure

    It’s helpful to make a habit of paying attention to the factors that will keep you in a constructive state of mind and maintain perspective while you’re under pressure, which for lawyers is much of the time. This skill takes practice in advance of your performance.13 I recommend that you practice this daily for at least two to three weeks leading up to your performance so that you can form a solid habit.

    Ask yourself the following:

    • What do I love most about this area of performance?
    • What strengths, personality traits, skills, and strategies can I fully rely on from myself?
    • When I’ve been under pressure before, what did I rely on to overcome the challenge?
    • What do I admire and respect about myself in my area of performance?14


    While thinking like a lawyer is one of many tools to help you be a successful lawyer, building mental toughness and psychological resilience are important, too, to help you perform at your best and manage the pressures associated with being a lawyer. As Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.”


    1 G. Andrew, H. Benjamin et al., The Role of Legal Education in Producing Psychological Distress Among Law Students and Lawyers, Am. B. Found. Res. J. 225, 251 (1986).

    2 Lawrence S. Krieger, Institutional Denial About the Dark Side of Law School, and Fresh Empirical Guidance for Constructively Breaking the Silence, 52 J. of Legal Ed. 112, 117 (2002). See also Todd D. Peterson & Elizabeth W. Peterson, Stemming the Tide of Law Student Depression: What Law Schools Need to Learn from the Science of Positive Psychology, 9 Yale J. Health L. & Ethics 357 (2009).

    3 Christopher Peterson & Robert S. Vaidya, Explanatory Style, Expectations, and Depressive Symptoms, 31 Personality & Individual Differences 1217-23 (2001); see also Lyn Y. Abramson et al., “Optimistic Cognitive Styles & Invulnerability to Depression,” in The Science of Optimism and Hope 75-98 (Jane E. Gillham ed., 2000).

    4 Martin E.P Seligman et al., Explanatory Style As a Mechanism of Disappointing Athletic Performance, 1 Psychol. Sci. 143-46 (1990).

    5 Sheldon Cohen et al., Emotional Style and Susceptibility to the Common Cold, 65 Psychosomatic Med. 652-57 (2003).

    6 For a thorough analysis of explanatory style, see Martin E.P. Seligman, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life (New York, NY: Random House 1991). See also Martin E.P. Seligman, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being 182-220 (New York, NY: Free Press 2011).

    7 These questions come from Judith S. Beck, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Basics and Beyond 2nd Ed. 171-72 (New York, NY: The Guilford Press 2011).

    8 Karen Reivich & Andrew Shatte, The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles 172-80 (New York, NY: Broadway Books 2002).

    9 James W. Pennebaker, Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma and Emotional Upheaval (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger 2004).

    10 Sian Beilock, Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal about Getting It Right When You Have To 159, 179 (New York, NY: Free Press 2010).

    11 Id. at 161.

    12 Id. at 166, 175.

    13 The word “performance” means any event at which you must think clearly and be at your mental best. This could be going to court, closing a real estate deal, having a tough conversation with a client or a family member, writing a brief, or drafting a contract.

    14 These questions, and this concept, come from Amy L. Baltzell, Living Life in the Sweet Spot: Preparing for Performance in Sport and Life 224-27 (West Virginia University 2011).

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