Cultivating Resilience in Lawyers from the Ground Up

I had the privilege of being a fly on the wall at Quinnipiac Law School‘s Business of Law Symposium last weekend. Now, it’s not my usual way to spend a beautiful spring Saturday, particularly since I am not an attorney or a law student. I have, however, become increasingly aware of burnout, substance abuse and depression/ anxiety among both law students and lawyers. My curiosity led me to sit in this symposium which was intended to help young lawyers become “practice [and business] ready” right from the start. Would I be able to pick up on trends or beliefs that fostered high levels of burnout and low levels of resilience?

I often describe the ideal level of resilience as “empowered resilience”–the ability to not only bounce back (survive), but bounce forward (thrive). This is a person’s capacity for stress-related growth. Prior to my visit to the school, I had done my own homework to learn more about what makes lawyers less resilient. I know the factors that inhibit resilience in “helping professions” (counselors, first responders, nurses, and the like). Were the barriers the same for lawyers? What I found was that in terms of individual traits, no they are not the same. Lawyers are a unique “breed” of personality (and that’s a good thing!) But there is an overarching, and ironic, commonality in the barriers these two professions have against resilience: very often the things that make a lawyer good or a therapist good are also the things that get in their way of building resilience.

One hallmark for those in the helping professions, for example, is that they are other-oriented. Their ability to adapt to, respond to and reflect the needs of their clients allows them to compassionately connect with their clients and elicit change. The downside of being other-oriented is the tendency to ignore their own needs and boundaries. In its extreme, even defending one’s own self-interest for health and well-being can become difficult. Combine that with their exposure to secondary trauma from their clients, we have a recipe for burnout, addiction and breakdown.

What is it, then, for lawyers? What are the traits that both make lawyers highly successful, but also very resistant to resilience? For one, lawyers tend to measure high in skepticism and low in socialibity. This serves them well when it comes to the requirements of the profession. A keen, skeptical eye toward the evidence along with the ability to focus in isolation on legal briefs, statutes and trial preparation are mandatory for the work. It doesn’t, however, serve them well when it comes to building resilience. While there are many factors that contribute to empowered resilience, two continually rise to the top. First is the ability to be flexible in one’s thinking. How well can a person reframe a challenge or adversity to toward their growth? The second is developing high-quality relationships with others. How well does a person cultivate support systems? Both skepticism and low sociability are barriers to those resiliency building skills. In fact, Dr. Larry Richards found that nearly all lawyers scored in the lower half of the resiliency assessment–with an (un)healthy number of them scoring in the bottom tenth percentile.

But wait! Before I lose you to the gloom and doom of those numbers, hope does spring eternal. While we are all born with certain baked-in levels of resilience–some of us being more naturally resilient than other–resilience is a muscle that can be grown! When is the best time, then, to cultivate one’s resilience? John F. Kennedy said that the time to repair a roof is when the sun is shining. I agree, and would add that the time to make a roof resistant to damage is while the house is being built. Law schools are the ideal place to engender, cultivate and even mandate the growth of personal and professional resilience. 

That leads me back to where I began, sitting off to the side listening to world-class lawyers and business of law experts share their expertise with a new generation of lawyers. Some were old lions of the profession, some were younger in their careers. My ears perked up as they brought up concepts of well-being, resilience, burnout and work-life balance throughout the course of the day. Some were more open than others to the idea that the professional culture needs to change in order to adopt a healthier professional workforce (and, no, it didn’t fall along generational lines as I assumed it might). Less important to me was hearing a consensus on how to address low resilience and well-being among lawyers. What encouraged and even energized me was the fact that the ugly elephant in the room was being pointed out. The unspeakable had a name.  Kudos to Quinnipiac Law School for fostering that openness so that the students who are the next generation of law can change the culture from the ground up.

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Want to bring a culture of resilience to your school, firm or organization? I can help. Keynotes and workshop information can be found here.

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