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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    February 01, 2018

    On Balance
    5 Things Resilient Lawyers Do Differently

    Whether you entered law school with low resilience or developed the trait on the job, it's possible to increase your capacity to withstand change-related stresses and preserve or increase your well-being.

    Paula M. Davis-Laack

    woman hiking

    The legal profession is in the middle of rapid and continuous change.1 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, and an understanding of the role technology plays in legal services delivery. They must be ready to solve clients’ complex problems by collaborating with other professionals in an innovative way.

    Paula Davis-LaackPaula Davis-Laack, Marquette 2002, MAPP, is the founder of the Stress & Resilience Institute, a training and consulting firm focused on enhancing resilience, well-being, and engagement in the legal profession. She is the author of the e-book, Addicted to Busy: Your Blueprint for Burnout Prevention.

    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 that they have thin-skinned tendencies, take criticism personally, and are overly defensive and resistant to feedback.2

    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).3

    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.4 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, I’ve identified five key ways in which lawyers can develop and maintain resilience.

    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 School professors Scott Westfahl and David Wilkins identify resilience and cognitive reframing as important leadership and professional skills lawyers should develop.5

    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.6

    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.7 The belief in one’s ability to overcome adversity and achieve 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.8

    women hiking

    Cross-examine Your Thinking

    Lawyers spend years learning and then practicing how to “think like a lawyer.” Professionally, lawyers are responsible for doing all due diligence in a matter, analyzing what could go wrong in a situation, and steering their clients away from negative effects. That’s important when lawyers are engaged in the practice of law.

    However, when lawyers look at issues through such a pessimistic, rigid lens 12-14 hours per day, that thinking style becomes harder to turn off when it’s not needed. Ultimately, it can undercut leadership capabilities, interactions with clients, staff, and family, and the way life is viewed generally.

    Relational energy is how much your interactions with others motivate, invigorate, and energize, rather than drain or exhaust.

    Resilient lawyers cross-examine and reframe their unproductive thinking in the following ways:9

    • 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).

    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.10

    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.11

    Distinguish 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.12 Perfectionistic strivings are aspects of perfectionism that are self-oriented, internally focused, and associated with having high standards.13 Perfectionistic concerns are aspects of perfectionism that are outwardly oriented, other focused, and associated with worries about making mistakes and fear of negative social evaluation and that drive the thought, “What will other people think?”14

    Perfectionism generally can be associated with a number of negative outcomes, but perfectionistic concerns are the bigger problem. Perfectionistic concerns drive higher levels of anxiety and 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.15


    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 byproduct of innovation. To be an effective and influential lawyer and leader in this era of continuous change, you must have resilience in your toolkit.


    1 Terri Mottershead, Innovating Talent Management In Law Firms, ABA Law Practice Today, Nov. 14, 2016.

    2 Larry Richard, Herding Cats: The Lawyer Personality Revealed, 29(11), Rep. to Legal Mgmt. (Aug. 2002).

    3 See Richard, supra note 3, for percentile references.

    4 National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being (Aug. 2017). You can download a copy of the report here.

    5 Scott A. Westfahl & David B. Wilkins, The Leadership Imperative: A Collaborative Approach to Professional Development in the Global Age of More for Less, 69 Stan. L. Rev. 1713 (June 2017).

    6 Paul B. Harms et al., Evaluation of Relationships Between Reported Resilience and Soldier Outcomes. Report Number 2: Positive Performance Outcomes in Officers (Promotions, Selections and Professions) Defense Technical Information Center (April 2011).

    7 Mark D. Seery, E. Alison Holman & Roxane Cohen Silver, Whatever Does Not Kill Us: Cumulative Lifetime Adversity, Vulnerability and Resilience, 99(6) J. of Personality & Soc. Psychol. 1025-41 (2010).

    8 Albert Bandura, Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control 79 (New York, NY: W.H. Freeman & Co. 1997).

    9 Judith S. Beck, Cognitive Behavior Therapy Basics and Beyond, 2d Ed. 171 (New York, NY: The Guilford Press 2011); see also Karen Reivich & Andrew Shatte, Resilience Factor (New York, NY: Broadway Books 2002).

    10 Bradley Owens et al., Relational Energy at Work: Implications for Job Engagement and Job Performance, 101(1) J. Applied Psychol. 35-49 (2016).

    11 David Ruiz, Microsoft Deputy GC: In New Outside Counsel Program, AFA’s Plus Competition Equals Success,, Aug. 7, 2017.

    12 Joachim Stoeber, How Other-Oriented Perfectionism Differs from Self-Oriented and Socially Prescribed Perfectionism: Further Findings, 37(4) J. of Psychopathology & Behav. Assessment 611-23 (2015).

    13 Andrew P. Hill & Thomas Curran, Multidimensional Perfectionism and Burnout: A Meta-Analysis, 20(3) Personality & Soc. Psychol. Rev. 269-288 (2016).

    14 Id.

    15 Id.

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