April 2017

8 tips on bouncing back from a setback

Lawyers are expected to be their best in and outside of the courtroom. Many lives can depend on them, including their clients and their families.  Developing resilience is critical for lawyers to maintain fitness to practice and to avoid running afoul of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct or applicable state rules. Lawyers need to be able to rebound quickly from setbacks, face challenges with a positive perspective and feel energized rather than depleted from their work.

“Fierce & Gritty: Resilience Training for Lawyers,” an ABA-sponsored webinar, provides an overview of factors and competencies that contribute to resilience and presents the scientific evidence that resilience competencies are positively associated with well-being and business outcomes, such as engagement and retention.

Program speakers Anne Brafford of Huntington Beach, Calif., and Martha Knudson of Salt Lake City, Utah, say that fortunately, resilience is a collection of competencies that can be learned and developed. Brafford and Knudson are former litigators who received master’s degrees in applied positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania and are co-founders of Aspire Legal.

 “Resilience relates in a practical way to the practice of law,’’ explains Brafford, who practiced law for 18 years and is currently the chair of the ABA Attorney Well-being Committee. “The ABA Model Rule 1.1: Competence requires that lawyers develop and maintain their competence to practice law, and resilience is one competence that can help you do that.”

A 2016 study of 13,000 lawyers by Patrick Krill and associates looked at the mental health challenges of the legal profession. The study found that lawyers report: 

  • Suicidal thoughts – 11.5 percent
  • Anxiety – 19 percent
  • Alcohol abuse – 21 percent
  • Stress – 23 percent
  • Depression – 28 percent

“The findings were revealing, especially depression and alcohol abuse, which were higher than the general population,” Brafford says.  “We need to learn to manage stress better.”

So what is resilience? While there is no one definitive definition, Brafford lists two:

  • “The ability to respond to stress in a healthy, adaptive way such that personal goals are achieved at minimal psychological and physical cost” – Physician Wellness Program
  • “The ability to persist in the face of challenges and to bounce back from adversity.” – U.S. Army Resilience Program

Personal resources, such as emotional stability, optimism and social support, contrast with demand, which is anything that is depleting our lives that leads to burnout.

“When resources are higher than demand, you are more resilient and you tend toward engagement in your work and in your life,” Brafford explains. “When demands outweigh resources, that’s when your resilience is overcome and you tend toward burnout.”

Brafford and Knudson introduce eight individual resources that lawyers can cultivate to help them become more resilient:

1.     Flexible optimism: Choosing how to think about why things happen in our lives has an impact on our level of resilience. It involves a positive explanatory style, which is a habit of thought that can lend itself either to mental toughness or make us prey to helplines. Optimists see things as temporary (negative experience won’t last forever) and specific (adversity pertains to narrow aspects); and they externalize (recognize factors beyond self). Pessimists are just the opposite, seeing things as permanent and universal, and they internalize. “The reality is that we all fall somewhere between optimism explanatory style and pessimist explanatory style.” Knudson says.

In fact, she says lawyers tend to be pessimists due to the nature of the job. But while pessimism is productive in many legal contexts, it’s not always the best approach in all circumstances. Knudson says, “The key is to learn to toggle between having a pessimistic and optimistic explanatory style depending on the circumstance.”

2.     Stress mindset: Chronic stress can be harmful but, Knudson says, responding to stress as a challenge rather than a threat enhances performance and productivity, improves health and vitality, improves memory, sharpens hearing and makes our brain work faster. “Experiencing stress helps us to learn and get better at stress,’’ Knudson says.

3.     Connection: Brafford says relationships, social support and belonging are important resources for resilience. She says research shows that people with close relationships live longer and have a higher goal attainment, among other positives. “If we really want to have optical functioning we need to make connecting and relationships a higher priority,” Brafford says.

4.     Positive emotions: People who experience positive emotions are more likely to be creative, innovative, to explore and to connect with others. “The benefits are all the things that lawyers care about – resilience, team performance, reduced anxiety and depression, better physical health,” Knudson says. “Successful people experience positive emotions in their lives.”

5.     Grit and meaningful work: While we normally equate grit with toughness, Knudson says, from a science perspective, grit is perseverance and passion toward long-term goals. Here talent is important but it’s only part of the equation. Combine talent with effort and it develops skill, which combined with hard work leads to achievement. The challenge for many law firms, Knudson says, is to create an environment where people can work hard at getting better in an area they might not be good at without fear of failure costing them their job.

6.     Physical health: Knudson says physical activity “is as effective at relieving depression as antidepressant medication and therapy.”

7.     Mental flexibility:  Knudson talks about having the skill of mindfulness, the ability to know what’s happening in your head at any given moment while not getting carried away with it. She says that being aware of what is going on in your mind when things happen instead of just reacting allows you time to make an appropriate response to the situation.

8.     Cognitive reframing: This requires awareness of your thoughts in the present moment that allows you to reprogram your brain. Brafford uses the ABCs to explain the technique:

Adversity strikes.

Beliefs are triggered. Every adversity triggers a thought or judgment about that situation, which in turn causes a reaction or consequence; we impose our interpretation on the adversity, which causes an emotional reaction.

Consequences. Our mental reaction to the event (and not the event itself) triggers consequences for our feelings and behaviors.  When an event happens, slow down long enough to choose what your reaction is going to be.  

“Everything we’ve talked about are habits of the mind, which are hard to change and develop,’’ Brafford says. “But these are all skills that can be learned if we make a concerted effort.”

Nancy Stek, associate director of the New Jersey Lawyers Assistance Program, serves as program moderator. The program was sponsored by the ABA Legal Career CentralCenter for Professional DevelopmentCenter For Professional ResponsibilityCommission On Disability RightsCommission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, Criminal Justice SectionHealth Law SectionLaw Practice DivisionStanding Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent DefendantsSection of Family LawSection of LitigationSolo, Small Firm and General Practice DivisionTort, Trial and Insurance Practice Committee, and the Young Lawyers Division.

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