Resilience techniques for lawyers

Why resilience training?

Resilience can mean the ability to bounce back from disruption, stress or change, or a dynamic process that involves a personal negotiation through life that fluctuates across time, life stage and context, as defined by psychologists Tusaie and Dyer. More than ever, resilience has become also a necessary part of being a lawyer.

When turning to managing your career as a lawyer, experts first advise lawyers to reflect on the challenges faced in working life. These might be the place of work, the environment of the workplace, balancing competing requirements in life with work, client or colleague expectations, or even perception of confidence or age, at any stage of professional life.

Considering how resilient you are as a lawyer may take some reflection, and yet resilience training is an increasingly popular approach to common professional challenges.

Resilience is a professional as well as a personal matter for lawyers. With technological advances that have led law firms to transform traditional business models, internal organisation and client service, come the need for lawyers to adapt to new environments, ways of working and career management.

Resilience training has been used by the US army, in a case study reported by the Harvard Business Review, and by other organisations to help professionals maintain a healthy level of physical and psychological wellness when faced with career challenges.

Challenges for lawyers

A group of lawyers tried out some recommended resilience training methods at a recent session organised by the Law Society of England and Wales, led by professional trainer and coach, Lubna Gem Arielle.

At the core of resilience training is a basic evidence-based psychology tenet that thoughts influence feelings which in turn affect behaviour, and lawyers can apply the accompanying techniques to learn greater resilience.

Even extremely capable and knowledgeable lawyers can hold a wide range of professional fears. Those in the group varied from presenting to a board, dealing with a new or difficult manager, speaking up about an issue at work, returning to work after a career break or deciding your next career move as in-house counsel, as well as facing a change of circumstances.

By reflecting on mindset, thought patterns and underlying perceptions, resilience techniques offer a chance to devise strategies, tools and techniques to train the mind to think differently, and become more resilient.

First steps

A first step is to identify challenges in your professional life.  Changing approaches to these can be difficult as neural paths in the brain become established by repeated action or thought. Certain familiar existing thought patterns may also be obstacles. The theory is that as the mind has the capacity to change, being proactive can help it change and re-learn processes.

These thought traps can be categorised as:

  • Personalisation: where one applies a negative thought to oneself, such as where a person believes that what others do or say is a direct and personal reaction to that person, or comparing oneself to others as means to determine traits including intelligence or capability. Engagement in personalisation may also be seeing oneself as the cause of external event for which one was not responsible.
  • Permanent: where one considers a situation will always persist; or
  • Pervasive: thinking that wherever one is,  something will always happen.

Techniques for lawyers:

To change such negative thought patterns, lawyers can benefit from certain techniques, such as:

Challenging thought 

One recommended technique was to change a negative thought by replacing it with a more rational thought, then a positive thought about the issue. By doing this, lawyers can learn to isolate a lesson outside of the story that goes with it, and which could be embedded in thought.

When a negative thought arises, challenge it with a thought that envisages a more realistic possible alternative scenario. In turn, a type of positive thought to replace that might be to recall your strengths or consider what another objective observer may think.

Negativity bias

A common challenge for professionals in becoming more resilient is the negativity bias, a scenario where however many positive aspects are present, the human mind inevitably focuses on the negative statement, feedback or circumstance.

This is part of human behaviour and although not exclusive to lawyers, a tendency to perfectionism may arise more often for lawyers, particularly due to a stressful professional environment which affects behaviour.

Journalling

Journalling is a key suggested resilience-building technique.  Writing down thoughts which might be centred on the above types and then transforming them into positive alternative thoughts, was said to be highly effective, particularly when based on three daily thoughts or action points.

Working out how to reframe such thoughts turned out to be a valuable exercise undertaken by the group at the Law Society lawyers’ event.

Objectivity

Reminding yourself or others how well-qualified and experienced you are as a lawyer, considering your demonstrable objective achievements, such as qualifications, publications and successes, can put challenges, negative thoughts, change or difficult circumstances experienced in professional life into perspective and help the process of resilience training.

Network

To supplement this, it is important to have in place or have access to a network of support, in the form of colleagues, a professional coach, friends and family, or a professional network.

Resilience trainers also advise that it is important to maintain healthy diet, exercise and sleep patterns.

Meditation and mindfulness

Meditation on a regular basis has been proven to significantly enhance resilience to everyday events and challenges. Similarly, mindfulness is known to be a helpful technique and way of being to face such challenges.

The Law Society runs a Recharger programme for lawyers and related events for the Law Society Women Lawyers Division, which offers access to its own ambassadors.

Practical Law In-house Miriam Kenner