In reading about lawyers’ mental health, I keep running across the word “resilience.” What is resilience and why is it important to lawyers?
Resilience is Important to Everyone
The definition of resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. Psychological resiliency is the ability of a person to adapt to life in the face of adversity or stress. People with low resilience tend to be relatively thin-skinned, defensive, and easily wounded by criticism, rejection or other setbacks.
Bending without breaking is part of it. When faced with adversity, challenge or change, strive for a three-part response. Step 1 is the capacity to spring back instead of staying down, defeated. But beyond that, step 2 requires adapting (making change(s) to better handle the situation) and then ultimately step 3) actually thriving as a result–growing. Those who just rebound are going to have the same struggle again when they are faced with the same challenge next time. Those who get to the 2nd step will be better prepared for this or similar challenge in the future. Those who get to the 3rd part of the definition are not going to just survive but will finds ways to succeed.
Lawyers Don’t Score Well on Resiliency
Resiliency is not one of the strengths of the lawyer population. Dr. Larry Richard, a principal at Lawyer Brain LLC, a psychologist and former litigator, is an author and speaker on the use of positive psychology and applied behavioral science in helping lawyers and law firms to succeed. He has gathered personality data from hundreds of lawyers. His research shows that 90% of lawyers score in the bottom half of the scale on the psychological trait called “Resilience”. They don’t bounce back well from adversity. And 9 out of 10 lawyers rank in the 30th percentile or lower for resilience!
The psychological traits on which lawyers register significantly higher than the general population are described as: autonomous; antisocial; resistant to new ideas; skeptical; high sense of urgency; and easily discouraged by setback. These are all traits which undermine resiliency.
The good news is that resiliency may be fostered in and by an individual. I’ve read numerous authorities on this and have culled the following six steps to building greater resiliency:
1. Reject permanence, pervasiveness and personalization. How we explain setbacks to ourselves is important. Psychologist Martin Seligman talked in terms of optimism or pessimism and Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant in their recent book Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy talked in terms of resilience. I think it amounts to reframing.
- Permanence: Resilient people see bad events as temporary rather than permanent. For example, “My boss did not like the way I wrote that brief” rather than, “My boss never likes my work.”
- Pervasiveness: Resilient people don’t let setbacks or bad events affect unrelated areas of your life. Resilient people would say, “That wasn’t my best work” not, “I am no good at anything.”
- Personalization: People who have resilience don’t blame themselves when bad events occur; they see other people, or the circumstances, as the cause. They might say, “I didn’t have the resources to finish that project on time” rather than “I messed that project up because I can’t do this job.”
2. Boost self-confidence through greater competence. In Option B, Sheryl Sandberg recounts how she was frustrated as a child when her mother took her on an intimidatingly steep ski slope. The mother’s advice? Just take ten turns. Sheryl did. And then she took ten more turns, and soon she was down the slope. Sandberg says that she has used this analogy in all sorts of business and life situations to break a difficult challenge into more easily accomplished steps. Once easy steps are accomplished, a foundation of confidence is laid to tackle the more challenging tasks. Confidence rises along with competence. Focus on what you can do instead of what you cannot do. Persevering with the process gives us a framework we can apply in other challenging circumstances.
3. Disavow perfectionism. Don’t let searching for the ever-elusive perfect be the enemy of the good. I know many lawyers, particularly early in their careers, want to know they have found “every relevant case” or revise the document multiple times for the best presentation. In this fast-changing world we live in, if we wait to perfect the finished product, the product will likely no longer fill the need.
4. Maintain high quality connections. Turns out it is pretty important to have people in your life who know you, love you, and support you—the authentic you. So often we are told to “fake it till we make it.” But faking it is exhausting and can be emotionally depleting. We all need to be able to share our genuine feelings with family and friends. They often can help us with the reframing and confidence-boosting tasks outlined above.
5. Get adequate sleep and positive outlets for stress. We’ve all heard how important sleep is, yet the bravado about pulling an all-nighter or not “needing” more than a few hours sleep continues. Studies show that inadequate sleep can be a major detriment to your physical health and your cognitive functioning as well. Without positive outlets for stress, such as exercise or meditation, many lawyers are turning to self-medication. It is much more difficult to face adversity or stress while feeling physically unrested or unwell.
6. Find meaning and purpose in what you do. The idea of connecting to purpose is the idea that what we do matters to people other than ourselves. This focus builds resilience as well as grit. As Angela Duckworth wrote in Grit: the Power of Passion and Perseverance, “Grittier people are dramatically more motivated than others to seek a meaningful, other-centered life.” So are resilient people. Although some say the Millennial generation is more concerned about this, finding meaning and purpose in work is important for all of us. When our goals are connected to the benefit of others, even the small or tedious task has significance. Consider the parable of three bricklayers encountered at the side of a country road. You ask each what they are doing.
Bricklayer #1: “I am laying bricks.”
Bricklayer #2: “I am building this wall.”
Bricklayer#3: “I am building the greatest cathedral as the house of God.”
The first bricklayer has a job, the second a career, and the third a calling. Which bricklayer do you identify with? Most lawyers chose this profession because we wanted to be part of a system that is bigger than individual bricklayers. Our profession is imbued with many opportunities to make a difference for people. To build the legal equivalent of a cathedral. Remaining connected to meaning and purpose will help us build resiliency in the face of adversity.