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From fear to power

“As a profession, we need to stop pretending that fear does not exist in lawyering,” writes Heidi K. Brown in “Untangling Fear in Lawyering: A Four-Step Journey Toward Powerful Advocacy.”

Brown struggled with anxiety and fear as a law student at the University of Virginia School of Law, as a litigator in the construction industry and as a new law professor at Brooklyn Law School.  After finally untangling her fears, she now embraces authenticity as a powerful asset in teaching and practicing law.

In her book, Brown counsels lawyers to begin “understanding how fear works, distill it into tangible parts, get to know it deeply and then flip the message: we are effective counselors and advocates because we are human and real.”

“Instead of reinforcing the myth of the infallibility of the ‘successful lawyer,’” she writes, “let’s train law students and lawyers to untangle the knots of fear and circumstances that could lead to mistakes.”

YourABA asked Brown for more details:

Tell me about fear in lawyering.

For many law students and lawyers, studying and practicing law can be scary. We rarely talk about fear in law school or legal training. Instead, well-meaning mentors often advise, “Just do it…fake it till you make it…if your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough.” Yet, scientists confirm that fear blocks learning and performance. It can stoke anxiety and depression in a learning environment and profession already saturated with mental health challenges. 

How does one go about untangling fear?

To untangle fear, a great starting place is to acknowledge — out loud — that some lawyering scenarios likely will ignite more distress in some of us than others. That is okay and doesn’t mean we don’t deserve to be here. We just need to better understand how fear works. Instead of ignoring it or pushing through it, we must take the time to study the basic science of it and how it blocks learning and performance. Then, we can harness its mental, physical, and emotional elements and channel them into impactful advocacy.

Should the legal profession take a systemic approach to mitigating fear in lawyering?

Yes. If we can turn down the dial of stress and anxiety even one notch for even one struggling individual in our profession by sparking a dialogue about the reality of fear in lawyering, let’s do it. Responding to the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being’s call to action for the profession to reduce the high levels of toxicity in our profession, we should cultivate resources to help law students and lawyers deconstruct and understand fear so that they can become powerful, impactful advocates. Any individual can mitigate fear with the right guidance and support.

How do other professions deal with fear?

Some medical schools are openly addressing fear of mistake-making by directly acknowledging the reality that medical mistakes happen despite the best efforts of well-trained personnel. Then they teach medical students what to do when missteps occur, how to communicate with patients and families about medical errors and how to avoid repeating mistakes. Some medical schools have implemented new curricula specifically designed to address the reality of medical mistakes in a “nonfear-based” learning environment.

Likewise, journalists have acknowledged the tangible presence of fear in their industry. Some journalism professors have incorporated mindfulness into their curriculum to help students build emotional self-awareness; others offer resources designed to help journalists understand and address fear-related trauma. Further, some engineering professors have incorporated mistake-making into their curriculum to expressly address fear of failure. Educators in the business and entrepreneurship arena teach the “fail fast” principle, seeking to defuse fear and use mistakes and failure as learning opportunities.

Part of our job as legal analysts is to draw analogies from other sources when our existing rule frameworks are insufficient to solve a legal problem. Our profession has a problem with fear. Our current tools for addressing it seem deficient. Let’s learn from other professions.

What are some ways athletes approach performance that can help lawyers who are fearful?

Fear is an issue that can dramatically affect athletes at all levels of play. Fear of failure, injury, “choking,” losing and embarrassing oneself can rattle even the most hardworking and best-trained competitors. Sports psychologists and coaches help athletes unearth the roots of their fears, develop and trust a training process and ultimately rise to the occasion in fear-invoking performance moments.

As lawyer-athletes, we can learn a lot from these sports psychology techniques:

  1. Adopt a preparation process to train our minds and bodies
  2. Get to know the roots of any fear-based messages we tell ourselves in anticipation of a performance
  3. Realize that such fear-based messages likely are outdated and can be deleted and replaced with accurate new messages about our current ability
  4. Trust our mental and physical training
  5. Adopt pre-game routines that we repeat every time we step into intense performance moments
  6. In the moment: breathe, trust and focus on the process, not the outcome.

You write about replacing fear with fortitude. How does one go about that?

I suggest a four-step process to help reframe fear into fortitude:

  • First, we identify scenarios in our personal and professional lives that perhaps should induce fear but do not, and those that arguably should not, but do
  • Next, we reframe and reboot our mental approach to fear in lawyering—using vulnerability, authenticity and humility to tap into personal power
  • Then, we cultivate an athlete’s mindset toward the physicality of fear
  • Finally, we foster a culture of fortitude in tackling individual legal challenges and in helping others.

What can law schools do to help students get a handle on fear before they practice law?

We can cultivate an educational environment in which students, faculty, administrators and mentors openly discuss the reality of fear in lawyering, and then develop and encourage the use of practical strategies for untangling it. Instead of advising law students to “fake it till they make it” or “just do what scares you,” we can say — out loud — that yes, lawyering can be scary, and some interactive scenarios will be more intimidating for some of us than others. That does not mean that students who are afraid of such situations are not cut out for law school or practice, or don’t deserve a seat at the table. Quite the contrary. By first acknowledging fear in lawyering and then deepening our understanding of its roots and drivers, we can construct and adopt strategies to transform fear into powerful advocacy for others.

Starting in each student’s 1L year, we can foster a learning culture that includes:

  1. Encouraging law students to develop their own authentic legal personas and professional identities instead of feeling pressure to mirror others’ approaches or career trajectory
  2. Helping law students develop an aptitude for asking questions about confusing procedure, strategy and nuances in the law — without fear of judgment or criticism that deters risk-taking and undermines learning
  3. Providing practical, judgment-free tactical training, expressly focusing on tough or fear-inducing situations in which lawyering mistakes can happen
  4. Teaching law students how to approach a supervisor or mentor upon discovery of a potential or actual error and gain supportive advice about how to remedy the situation, thereby building character.

Of course, many law professors already are doing many of these things, but we can make this type of training more transparent and formalized.

What’s the most important message you hope to convey about fear in lawyering?

When I was a scared law student and lawyer, numerous mentors advised that maybe I should consider “doing something else” instead of helping me untangle my fear. I want law students to know that if you are nervous, anxious or afraid, it absolutely does NOT mean you should consider a different career or limit yourself to a certain type of law practice. You will be a powerful advocate through untangling and understanding your fear, and by being your amazing authentic self.

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