By Caryn R. Suder
Caryn R. Suder teaches Client Counseling and Negotiation at Loyola University Chicago School of Law. She is also a Writing Advisor at The John Marshall Law School. She can be contacted at csuder@luc.edu.
You know the symptoms: pounding heartbeat, sweaty palms, and dry mouth. You are about to take your first deposition, meet with a really important client, negotiate a big contract or settlement, or make your first opening statement to a jury—and you are nervous. What’s wrong with you? Nothing. You are human. And you are in good company. Even the most experienced attorneys can still get nervous before an important event. Try using the following strategies to manage nerves and boost your confidence:
Recognize that nerves can be beneficial. A little bit of nervousness keeps you on your toes. Overconfidence, on the other hand, makes you careless. If you are worried that the judge will ask you about that case, you will probably go back and read it one or two more times. Afraid you will forget to bring those charts and graphs with you to the negotiation? Then you will go back and check your file to make sure you have everything you need.
Prepare, prepare, prepare. While you certainly cannot anticipate everything that will happen in a proceeding, thorough preparation gives you confidence and enables you to think on your feet when something new or unexpected occurs.
Find out whom and what you are up against. Having a better idea of what you are in for can decrease your nervousness. If you are going into a negotiation or a deposition, research your opposing counsel. If you know that your opponent tends to be hostile or tries to bully new attorneys, you can practice responding to jabs so you will not be flustered. If you are appearing before a judge for the first time, talk to attorneys who have appeared before the judge. Learn the judge’s quirks and pet peeves. You will enter the courtroom calmer and more self-assured.
Learn breathing exercises. They work! Libraries and bookstores are loaded with books and CDs on ways to use breathing to calm the stress response. Experiment and find what works for you. Then practice the exercises until they become almost second nature.
Remind yourself of previous successes. You have experienced high-pressure situations before and come through them just fine. Think of a very difficult or stressful life or work experience you have navigated successfully. Tell yourself, “If I can (fight fires, give birth, get through the bar exam, get through a divorce, deal with irate customers), I can do this.”
Re-frame the new experience in terms of an old one. The “new” situation you are nervous about may not be as new as you think. You already may have well-developed skills that transfer easily to the new setting. Worried about conducting a client interview for the first time? If you once worked in customer service, tell yourself that you are going to meet a customer who just happens to have a legal problem instead of a customer service problem. Getting ready to try a case for the first time? If you have teaching experience, tell yourself that your job will be to teach the judge or the jury about your case. But, instead of writing on a blackboard or calling on students, you will be using exhibits and witnesses to get your point across.
Put the situation in perspective. The thing that you are nervous about is an important part of your day or week, but it is only one part. This does not mean that you should minimize or pay less attention to the proceeding at hand. However, if you remind yourself that after this afternoon’s hotly contested motion you still have to finish doing research for the partner for that other case or you have to hurry home to make it to your child’s soccer game, you will not spend as much energy worrying because you will need that energy for other things.
Remember that you will make mistakes. All of us make mistakes. Simply reminding yourself that you cannot be perfect all the time can relieve a lot of the pressure.
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