The legal profession has changed in the 10 years since I stopped practicing. It has always been hard, but technology, innovation, and competition from different and unexpected places (like the “Big Four”) are reshaping the profession in profound ways. Law practices are much more complex and specialized, and good legal advice is just the start. It now is reasonable to expect lawyers to develop competencies in areas such as business acumen, project management, technology and coding, and innovation processes like human-centered design.
Mentoring and personal interaction have decreased, leaving many lawyers feeling isolated and lonely. As a result of inflexible career paths, the 24/7 “always on” pace, lack of collegiality, and a myopic focus on the bottom line to the exclusion of meaning and the fostering of intrinsic motivation, many lawyers, particularly women and diverse attorneys, have burned out and are leaving the profession in large numbers.
com paula marieelizabethcompany Paula 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, From Army Strong to Lawyer Strong®: What the Legal Profession Can Learn from the Army’s Experience Cultivating a Culture of Resilience.
These challenges affect not only lawyers at the individual level but also the groups and teams in which they operate. In addition, lawyers arrive at firms and organizations with a large leadership gap, often because traditional leadership principles aren’t taught in law school. It becomes harder for lawyers to catch up in this regard because their focus immediately turns to becoming technically proficient.1 Simply put, lawyers, teams, and leaders need more tools to be able to adapt to this type of change.
I became interested in studying the science of resilience while completing my master’s degree in applied positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. I attended that program because I burned out during what became the last year of my law practice, and I wanted to study, research, and ultimately teach evidence-based strategies to help busy professionals better manage the complex, challenging, and fast-paced environments in which they worked. In the seven years I have spent teaching resilience skills both within and outside the legal profession, I have realized how important it is that resilience be applied systemically. Individual workers can’t shoulder the load alone in this effort – leaders, teams, and organizations play a vital role.
When I finished my master’s degree, I had the good fortune to be part of the University of Pennsylvania faculty, teaching and training resilience skills to soldiers and their families as part of the Army’s Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness (CSF2) program. The Army’s efforts in this regard can provide useful information to the legal profession as it seeks to navigate this period of change and prioritize its own well-being efforts.
Challenges in the U.S. Army: Why Resilience and Well-being?
CSF2 started as a leadership and training program meant to help members of the military face life’s adversities by providing evidence-based training focused on improving soldiers’ ability to manage stress and better adapt to complex and changing environments.
General George Casey Jr. and his team, along with resilience educators and researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, developed a train-the-trainer program to teach resilience and well-being tools to senior leaders and their families. To date, the joint Penn/Army team has trained more than 40,000 master resilience trainers (MRTs).2
Resilience isn’t about toughening up people – it’s about empowering them.
As CSF2 has evolved, it is now housed under the Army’s Ready and Resilient Campaign, a comprehensive plan to address the enduring needs of the total Army, and it continues to prioritize a type of cultural change that integrates resilience into Army programs and assessment.
Lawyers and Soldiers: There Are Similarities
Before starting my work with the soldiers, all I knew about drill sergeants was based on movies I watched, and the idea of teaching them anything intimidated me. However, there are more similarities between the challenges that soldiers and lawyers face than you might first think.
Both groups undertake tasks for society that are very important but that can impose huge personal costs. While some tasks soldiers are asked to undertake involve armed conflict with external forces, soldiers spend most of their time leading troops and dealing with everyday work and life pressures. Lawyers frequently wade into the toughest interpersonal conflicts our society produces, with the charge that they resolve them, or at least mitigate their consequences.
The outcomes lawyers seek (or seek to avoid) may involve substantial amounts of money, a person’s livelihood, or the very future of a family. These disputes often involve conflicts in the fundamental values that lawyers and their clients hold dear, and such disputes frequently cannot be resolved by simply “doing the right thing.” And much like soldiers, many lawyers do their work in an adversarial context with a trained opponent on the other side.
How Do You Embed Resilience in a Skeptical Culture?
For resilience to become incorporated into Army culture, General Casey and his colleagues had to address certain challenges and pockets of perceived resistance. Here are three strategies they used:
1) Get leadership buy-in. I naively thought that if the chief of staff of the U.S. Army directed something to happen, it just happened. Poof – all lower ranking soldiers would simply fall in line, and resilience training would roll out without a hitch. I was wrong.
General Casey and his leadership team made extensive efforts to inform leadership at all levels about the program, the research efficacy supporting it, its components, and the benefits. Army leaders were very strategic in selling the program to their colleagues, who could then in turn influence others to embrace the change, rather than resist it or go about it half-heartedly.
Similarly, I have found that management-specific trainings and workshops are an especially useful predicate to this process, whereby it is possible to help leaders understand and develop comfort with resilience-related concepts before being expected to embrace the concepts or advocate for them within the firm.3
An important driver of organizational culture is leadership, and leadership behavior is highly correlated with job satisfaction. How a manager leads can either increase or decrease resilience.
2) Address the perception of “touchy feely.” One way to address the touchy-feely perception is with research. Lawyers like evidence, and it’s important to provide solid data to support the efficacy of these tools and programs. I address the research basis for resilience programs in the section below.
In addition, nothing is more effective at dismantling the touchy-feely aspect than peers freely talking about times they have overcome a challenge. In my work with a legal department at a Fortune 500 bank, I moderated a panel at which five lawyers each presented a video story of a challenge they overcame at work and the strategies they used to turn a significant corner on a work-related project. After each story, I highlighted the skills the lawyer used to marshal resilience, and we created a common language within the team. Stories about resilience don’t have to be deep life confessionals. There is a lot we can learn from individual, leader, and team-based challenges to highlight pockets of resilience.
3) Leverage TNTs. “TNT” is my colleague’s acronym for “tiny noticeable things.” Most organizations feel overwhelmed by change, especially change at the cultural level, so rather than do something small, they do nothing at all. In reality, cultural change starts with each individual choosing to do “the way we do things around here” differently, and these behaviors need to be modeled and supported by leaders.
There are several misconceptions about resilience – here are two big myths I sometimes encounter:
1) It’s about continuously pushing through. Daily recovery from work is crucial for maintaining high levels of well-being, performance, and resilience. The Gallup organization surveyed more than 10,000 people to determine whether they were “fully charged” – getting regular doses of meaning, interactions, and energy at work. When asked to reflect about their day before the survey, only 11 percent of the individuals surveyed reported having a great deal of energy.4
Recharging your batteries doesn’t have to take long – a quick coffee break, a conversation with a colleague, or listening to five minutes of your favorite podcast might be sufficient. Law firms and organizations need to pay attention, though, to the large and small ways leaders support and even encourage a “push through at all costs” message.
The ability to practice resilience and prioritize well-being becomes easier in organizations that establish trust and respect among their members, value employee contributions, communicate regularly with employees, and take employee needs into account when creating new initiatives.
2) It’s a statement about your toughness as a person. People who have not experienced much or any adversity are one of the only groups of people who truly have lower levels of resilience.5 Unfortunately, this is a larger group than you might think, given the rise of helicopter parenting and the “everybody gets an A or a trophy” culture.6 In addition, I don’t think anyone would suggest that drill sergeants need to toughen up.
When I asked some of my soldier friends how resilience skills have helped them, I heard things like, “I’m now more aware of how my actions affect those I lead,” “I’m flourishing – I’m able to see the growth opportunities in every situation,” “I’m calmer,” and “It provides an actionable skill set to all of the wisdom I heard from my leaders.”7 Resilience isn’t about toughening up people – it’s about empowering them.
Resilience Enables High Performance
Resilience is a set of skills that lawyers, teams, and leaders can develop, practice, and improve.8 Research shows that resilience skills unlock and enable a range of health- and performance-related benefits, and newer research about resilience at work is focused on teams.
Resilience and Individuals. Much of the research about resilience at work has focused at the individual level.9 It shows that resilience enables the following:
These capabilities lead to:
Less stress, anxiety, depression, and negative emotion;
More adaptability across a range of challenges;
Higher levels of performance;
Less worst-case scenario thinking;
The ability to reframe challenges quickly; and
More collaboration and innovation.
More than a decade of research supports the importance of resilience in the workplace for employee well-being.10 In general, the studies that have been reviewed offer support for the positive impact of resilience training – in 13 of the 14 reviewed studies, there was a statistically significant change in at least one of the dependent variables.11
In a separate study, resilience was found to be negatively associated with both exhaustion and cynicism (the two main dimensions of burnout) and counterproductive work behavior (such as rude behavior generally and embarrassing others).12 In addition, new research shows that employees with higher levels of psychological resilience and those who use resilient coping strategies handle the stress of job insecurity in a much more productive way.13
When my friend and colleague, Dave Shearon, surveyed more than 900 lawyers he had talked to about resilience during his time as executive director of the Tennessee Commission on CLE and Specialization, he discovered that the lawyers who used the skills were three times more likely to report that their commitment, energy, and engagement in their law practice were somewhat or much improved.14
Those studies where resilience training has not been shown to be as effective have suffered from a number of design-related flaws, including inconsistencies in how resilience is defined and then measured.15
Resilience, Teams, and Leadership. Resilience tools are important for leaders and teams as well. An important driver of organizational culture is leadership, and leadership behavior is highly correlated with job satisfaction.16 How a manager leads can either increase or decrease resilience. Law firm talent management consultant Terri Mottershead writes 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 professors Scott Westfahl and David Wilkins identify resilience and cognitive reframing as important leadership and professional skills lawyers should develop.17
Teamwork and collaboration lead to increased revenues and firm profits and enhanced client loyalty and retention, produce innovative outcomes, and help with transparency and risk management.18 The process of innovating (often done in teams) is full of stops, starts, missteps, failure, and slow results, and teams will be required to manage these challenges if they are going to launch new ideas, processes, and products successfully. Teams that are able to discuss both positive and negative experiences in a clear way are better able to work through adversity and have higher levels of trust and resilience.19
A critical foundation of resilient teams is psychological safety – a climate in which people feel comfortable expressing and being themselves. For knowledge work to flourish, people need to feel comfortable sharing their knowledge, which means sharing concerns, questions, mistakes, and partially formed ideas.20 Interestingly, teams that employ more positive emotions21 and focus on solidifying the connectedness of the people within their teams22 see more of this type of openness and thus higher levels of team resilience.
An Important Message for Organizations. The ability to practice resilience and prioritize well-being becomes easier in organizations that establish trust and respect among their members, value employee contributions, communicate regularly with employees, and take employee needs into account when creating new initiatives.23
Here are six resilience TNTs to get you started that cost no money and take very little time:
Say thank you more (probably much more) than you currently do.
Offer FAST feedback (frequent, accurate, specific, timely).
Be clear when giving assignments and talk to other partners or senior associates on the team, to minimize conflicting requests and ambiguity (two known accelerants of burnout).
Make constructive feedback a learning-focused, two-way conversation.
Keep people informed of changes.
Provide consistent recognition.
Recognition is last on the list, but I can’t say enough about its importance. Being recognized feels so good because it’s a true sign of belonging. I clerked for a judge after my first year in law school, and I really didn’t know what I was doing. He gave me a project, and after I finished it he left a note on my chair that said, “The report was great – keep up the good work.” That was almost 20 years ago, and I still have that note in my office. Research suggests that while people quickly adapt to money (the research about adaptation to happiness with regard to money is about money in general, not pay raises specifically), they never quite get used to feeling respected.24
The pace of change in law will accelerate in the future, and there will be an even greater demand to innovate and collaborate to meet these challenges. Resilience skills will help lawyers, teams, and leaders adapt to these changes and protect the legal profession’s only (and best) asset – its people.
Important Resilience Building Blocks
1) Think Flexibly. 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 practice looking at issues through such a pessimistic, rigid lens 12-14 hours a 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.
2) Connect More. Developing high-quality connections with other people has been shown to be an important building block of long-term well-being in the legal profession.25
Unfortunately, lawyers have some work to do in this area. A survey first reported in the Harvard Business Review and discussed in an Above the Law article shows that lawyers are the loneliest professionals, with more than 60 percent of them ranking above the standard on measures of loneliness.26 This and other studies have found that loneliness greatly affects our health; in fact, it is the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes per day.27
For example, a lawyer colleague and I recently talked about her sense of isolation. She’s a partner with a busy practice, and her mentor of 20-plus years recently retired. She’s not as close with the other partners in her practice group, and she just finished several years as a manager, including a stint on the firm’s management committee. Supervising peers was a challenge for her and reintegrating back into her lawyer-only role has been tough. The people who she formerly relied on are gone or in different roles, or existing relationships have changed.
3) Thrive. As I mentioned above, the notion that resilience is about continuously pushing through all the time is a myth. People who thrive at work are healthier, more resilient, and more focused, and experience far less burnout compared with their peers.28
1 Thank you to my friend and colleague Scott Westfahl for his insights in this paragraph. See Scott Westfahl (2015), Learning to Lead: Perspective on Bridging the Lawyer Leadership Gap in Leadership for Lawyers 79-88 (Rebecca Normand-Hochman & Heidi K. Gardner, eds. Globe Law & Business Limited).
2 While I have heard this story told many times, you can read more about how the program was created in Martin E.P. Seligman, The Hope Circuit 311-27 (New York, NY: Public Affairs, 2018); see also Karen J. Reivich, Martin E.P. Seligman & Sharon McBride, Master Resilience Training in the U.S. Army, 66(1) Am. Psychol. 25-34 (2011). An additional source is personal conversation with Lt. Col. Sylvia Lopez Johnson as to the current number of MRTs.
3 Paula Davis-Laack & Patrick Krill, How and Why to Bring the Lawyer Well-Being “Movement” to Your Firm, PD Quarterly 5-9 (Feb. 2018).
4 Tom Rath, Are You Fully Charged? The 3 Keys to Energizing Your Work and Life (Silicon Guild, 2015).
5Mark D. Seery, Whatever Does Not Kill Us: Cumulative Lifetime Adversity, Vulnerability, and Resilience, 99 J. Personality & Soc. Psychol. 1025-41 (2010).
6 Peter Gray, Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges (Sept. 22, 2015).
7 A big thank you to David Parish, Dan Mason, Sylvia Lopez, Nathan Kinnard, and Lauren Osinski for providing me with these responses.
8 I go into much more detail about the Army technical reports and the research generally in my e-book From Army Strong to Lawyer Strong®: What the Legal Profession Can Learn from the Army’s Experience Cultivating a Culture of Resilience. Please email me if you would like a copy: com paula pauladavislaack pauladavislaack paula com.
9 The list of benefits in this section comes from a blend of the following sources: Paul B. Lester et al., Evaluation of Relationships Between Reported Resilience and Soldier Outcomes: Report Number 2: Positive Performance Outcomes in Officers (Promotions, Selections, & Professions) (2011); Paul B. Lester et al., Report #3: Longitudinal Analysis of the Impact of Master Resilience Training on Self-Reported Resilience and Psychological Health Data (Dec. 2011); Steven M. Brunwasser, Jane E. Gillham & Eric S. Kim, A Meta-Analytic Review of the Penn Resiliency Program’s Effects on Depressive Symptoms, 77, J. of Consulting & Clinical Psychol. 1042-54 (2009); Andrew Skodol, The Resilient Personality in Handbook of Adult Resilience 112-25 (John W. Reich, Alex J. Zautra & John Stuart Hall, eds.) (New York, NY: The Guilford Press 2010). A collection of both the empirical research and the mainstream media articles published about CSF2 and MRT can be found at the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center website.
10 Ivan T. Robertson et al., Resilience Training in the Workplace from 2003-2014: A Systematic Review, 88 J. of Occupational & Organizational Psychol. 533-62 (2015).
12 Mindy K. Shoss, Lixin Jiang & Tahira M. Probst, Bending Without Breaking: A Two-Study Examination of Employee Resilience in the Face of Job Insecurity. 23(1) J. of Occupational Health Psychol. 112-26 (2018).
14 I would like to thank and acknowledge Dave Shearon for letting me use his own previous writings about the Army resilience training for this section and for sharing the data he collected about his own work with the Tennessee Commission.
15 Robertson et al., supra note 10, at 554-55.
16 Yafang Tsai, Relationship Between Organizational Culture, Leadership Behavior and Job Satisfaction, 11(1) BMC Health Servs. Research 98 (2011).
17 Scott A. Westfahl & David B. Wilkins, The Leadership Imperative: A Collaborative Approach to Professional Development in the Global Age of More for Less, Stanford L. Rev. (June 2017).
18 Heidi K. Gardner, Smart Collaboration: How Professionals and Their Firms Succeed by Breaking Down Silos (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2016).
19 John Paul Stephens et al., Relationship Quality and Virtuousness: Emotional Carrying Capacity as a Source of Individual and Team Resilience, J. of Applied Behav. Sci. 1-29 (2013).
20 Amy C. Edmondson, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons Inc. 2019). See also an article discussing Google’s study about what creates effective teams: Charles Duhigg (Feb. 25, 2016), What Google Learned from Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team, New York Times.
21 Isabella Meneghel, Marisa Salanova & Isabel M. Martinez, Feeling Good Makes Us Stronger: How Team Resilience Mediates the Effect of Positive Emotions on Team Performance, 17 J. Happiness Stud. 239-55 (2016).
22 Abraham Carmeli, Yair Friedman & Asher Tishler, Cultivating a Resilient Top Management Team: The Importance of Relational Connections and Strategic Decision Comprehensiveness, 51 Safety Sci. 148-59 (2013).
23 Matthew J. Grawitch & David W. Ballard, Introduction: Building a Psychologically Healthy Workplace 3-11 in The Psychologically Healthy Workplace (Matthew J. Grawitch & David W. Ballard, eds. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association 2016).
24 Roy F. Baumeister & Mark R. Leary, The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a Fundamental Human Motivation, 117(3) Psychol. Bulletin 497-29 (1995).
25 Lawrence S. Krieger & Kennon M. Sheldon, What Makes Lawyers Happy? A Data-Driven Prescription to Redefine Professional Success, 83 Geo. Wash. L. Rev. 554 (2015).
26 Shawn Achor et al., America’s Loneliest Workers, According to Research, Harvard Business Review (March 19, 2018).
27 Julianne Holt-Lunstad et al., Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review, 10(2) Persp. on Psychol. Sci. 227-37 (2015).
28 Christine Porath et al., Thriving at Work: Toward Its Measurement, Construct Validation, and Theoretical Refinement, 33(2) J. of Org. Behav. 250-71 (2012); see also Gretchen Spreitzer & Christine L. Porath, Creating Sustainable Performance: Four Ways to Help Your Employees – and Organizations – Thrive, Harvard Business Rev. 92-99 (Jan.-Feb. 2012).