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Law Practice Today


Five Mindsets That Undercut Your Ability to Think Like a Leader

Paula Davis-Laack


  • To be able to adapt more easily to change, lawyers need to recognize when their thinking isn’t working for them and cross-examine it. Here are five mindsets leaders need to pay attention to
Five Mindsets That Undercut Your Ability to Think Like a Leader

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As the legal profession continues to change, being able to lead effectively and quickly adapt and respond to challenges is essential. Most lawyers, however, have had very little if any formal leadership training. In addition, law school prepares future lawyers to think in a very specific way. Lawyers spend years learning and then practicing how to “think like a lawyer.” Professionally, lawyers are responsible for doing all of the due diligence in a matter, analyzing what could go wrong in a situation and steering their clients away from the negative impact. That’s important when lawyers are practicing law. But when lawyers look 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, colleagues, and family and cloud the way life is viewed generally.

Add to the mix exceedingly high levels of skepticism (at about the 90th percentile, according to Dr. Larry Richard’s research), and you’ll see that lawyers need to actively learn how to develop the mental agility needed to think like impactful, resilient leaders.

Law firm talent management consultant Terri Mottershead says, “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.

To be able to adapt more easily to change, lawyers need to recognize when their thinking isn’t working for them and cross-examine it. Here are five mindsets leaders need to pay attention to:

1. Imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome is a deeply held belief of intellectual phoniness (that occurs at all levels of practice) and sounds like a version of this: “Man, I got lucky this time. They will soon realize that I don’t have a clue what I’m talking about and ________ (ask me to leave the firm; step off the board; tell me I’m really not qualified to be in this class).” Despite a lot of evidence to the contrary, like degrees, promotions or other successes, imposter syndrome makes it difficult for people to internalize or accept their success. While a number of different traits and cognitive features nourish imposterism, the research suggests it is likely some combination of low efficacy (see below) and maladaptive perfectionism. [Editor's note: Also see Dwayne Allen Thomas' "When You Feel Like You Don't Belong" featured in this issue.]

2. Low efficacy.

Efficacy is the belief in your ability to solve work/life challenges and succeed. In short, it’s confidence. It’s also domain-specific, which means that you may feel highly confident in negotiating a contract, but have little confidence in leading a new committee. High efficacy has been shown to be a strong predictor of positive affect and activates adaptive coping strategies, such as planning, positive reframing, and acceptance. In addition, people with high efficacy are better able to identify new business opportunities, create new products, think creatively, commercialize ideas and persevere under stress and pressure.

Every lawyer I have worked with, at every level of practice, needs to develop some type of confidence capacity. For new attorneys, it might be building their negotiation or networking efficacy; mid-level and senior associates often want to increase their business development or public speaking efficacy; for partners, it might be better client and relationship development or developing other core leadership competencies like collaboration or strategy.

3. Thinking traps.

Thinking traps are overly rigid patterns of thinking that cause you to miss critical information. Several of the most common include jumping to conclusions (making assumptions without the relevant data), mind-reading (a version of jumping to conclusions where you believe you know what others are thinking and you act accordingly), all-or-nothing thinking (seeing a situation in only two categories and failing to recognize the middle ground), personalizing (it’s all my fault), and externalizing (it’s all your fault).

Thinking traps are also common; in fact, I jumped to conclusions just last week. I got an e-mail telling me that my credit score had changed. Naturally, I assumed the worst and immediately got upset thinking about all the time I was going to waste on the phone to get it fixed. I stewed about it for the afternoon, only to learn that my credit score had actually increased by five points. Leaders lose precious time and energy when they focus their thinking in the wrong direction.

4. Catastrophizing.

This thinking style represents your tendency to jump to the worst-case scenario when something stressful happens. You are more likely to catastrophize when you’re run down, stressed out, tired or depleted, something you value is at stake (maybe your reputation has been called into question), it’s your first time doing something, or the situation is vague or unclear (like receiving an e-mail that only says, “Come see me now”). It’s a powerful thinking style because it shuts down your ability to take purposeful action.

5. Pessimistic explanatory style.

How do you explain the cause of both positive and negative events (getting a flat tire; having another argument with your significant other; getting promoted to partner)? When you have a more pessimistic way of explaining stressful events, it sounds like: “This will be around forever (this event is permanent), it will impact multiple areas of my life (this event is pervasive), and it’s all my responsibility (this event is personal).” Pessimistic thinkers also tend to explain good events away, attributing success to luck or something outside of their control. These cognitive explanations fall along a continuum, and research has shown that consistent pessimistic explanations are associated with an increased likelihood of depression, anxiety, hopelessness, and helplessness.

Henry Ford is famous for saying, “If you think you can or if you think you can’t, you’re right.” The way you think influences your emotions and the way you act under stress and pressure. Stay tuned for strategies to help you reduce the impact of these unhelpful mindsets.