Ten Ways Successful Lawyers Respond to Career Setbacks

Vol. 32 No. 3


Jeena Cho is a partner with the JC Law Group PC, a bankruptcy law firm in San Francisco, California. She is co-author of The Anxious Lawyer (ABA, forthcoming) and offers training programs to lawyers and law firms to increase productivity and decrease stress through mindfulness.

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.
—Winston Churchill

All lawyers, whether we’ve been practicing for one month or many decades, will face setbacks, disappointments, and failures. Clients pay us to deliver certain desired results, yet the outcome of any given case is never completely up to us. We can pull all-nighters, research every angle, and write the most brilliant brief. The facts and the law may be on our side, but a judge may still rule against us.

As a young lawyer, I certainly had my share of challenges. Out of the gate, I failed the New York Bar. As someone who always excelled and was told “try hard, give it your best, and you’ll achieve success,” the failure was unacceptable. I also was fired from a job. I’ve lost jury trials, bench trials, and many motions.

Learning to overcome failures, learning to recognize obstacles, learning to moderate your emotions and bounce back from difficulties, these are the cornerstone of emotional intelligence and resiliency. The better you’re able to learn from your experience, let it go, and move on, the better you’ll be as a lawyer.

Here is what I’ve learned after 12 years of law practice. I have many battle scars, like a road map of what I’ve overcome, and I’m stronger and better for it.

Let’s start with a basic truth: The law is a very difficult profession. Few clients visit a law office to share happy news. Inevitably, most clients come with bad news, and it’s the lawyer’s job to clean up the mess. Lawyers also are given very few tools to manage these difficulties. To top it off, most lawyers got to where they are because they’re smart, dedicated, and good at what they do.

It’s simply not possible to never fail as a lawyer. Not if we’re applying ourselves and doing our job. The practice of law is just that: a lifelong practice. It’s not something we’ll ever perfect or master. Of course, we will get better with practice, as with anything. But the constant challenge is also what keeps many lawyers in the game. We enjoy the intellectual challenge, and it satisfies our curiosity.

What are some ways successful lawyers can respond to setbacks? Here are ten suggestions.

1. Do Your Best and Let Go of the Outcome

This is perhaps the most frustrating part of being a lawyer: You can do your absolute best work, and the judge or jury may still rule against you. Remember, you have no control over your opposing counsel, her client, the witnesses, the judge, the jury, and on most days, not even your own client. The only thing you truly control is yourself. Work self-mastery and learn to let go of the rest.

2. Be Gentle with Yourself

When I stumbled or things didn’t go as expected, I would tell myself that I was no good. I’d tell myself that I was a lousy lawyer and a terrible human being. We’re our own worst critics. Notice these types of thoughts and recognize that they are just thoughts—not facts. If you don’t pass the bar exam, you failed an exam. It’s just an exam. That doesn’t make you a failure. If you get fired from a job, maybe it just wasn’t the right fit for you. It’s just a job. It doesn’t mean you are unemployable.

Imagine yourself sitting with a dear friend who is experiencing a difficulty like yours and ask yourself, “what would I say to her?” Chances are, you’d offer comforting words and listen. Give yourself the same compassion. A helpful exercise is to write a letter to yourself as if you were giving advice to your best friend.

3. Practice Self-Care

Getting enough sleep, exercise, and healthy food may sound like kindergarten stuff, but self-care is crucial for maintaining a healthy mind and body. It enhances your natural ability to bounce back from difficulties.

Do something kind for yourself. Go for a long walk. Connect with a friend. Take a long bath. Cook a healthy, delicious meal for yourself. Do something positive for yourself. Avoid destructive behavior such as resorting to alcohol, engaging in retail therapy, and other commonly misused pleasures.

4. Mind Your Thoughts

I remember earlier in my practice, it felt as though I constantly had a tape recorder running in my head. It only recorded the negative events, verifications that I’m a screwup. The recorder would just replay a hearing I lost or the criticism from the partner. The toxic mentoring I received from the partner at the law firm also didn’t help.

The best way I’ve found to let go of these unproductive, unhelpful thoughts is through mindfulness and meditation practice. In meditation, you learn to observe your thoughts and recognize that you are not your thoughts. You also begin to recognize that your thoughts aren’t always true. Maybe there is a different interpretation. Perhaps you’re being overly critical. You practice getting better at gaining some perspective and distance from your thoughts.

5. Consider That This Experience Will Make You More Resilient

Resilience is your ability to bounce back from adversity. Life will throw many challenges at you, both in and out of law. How you’re able to overcome these obstacles is key to your success.

There is a growing body of research indicating that resilience is something that can be cultivated. Some ways of doing so include:

  • Practice cognitive restructuring. Recognize that your thoughts are not facts. Let’s imagine you’re at a hearing and the judge says, “Well, what about the decision in Smith vs. Jones? Why shouldn’t that apply in this case?” Assuming you have no idea what the judge is talking about, your mind might think, “I didn’t prepare enough. I’m a bad lawyer.” You can use cognitive restructuring and challenge your thoughts by saying, “I spent all the time I possibly could to prepare for this hearing. I did the best I can. And I am a good lawyer.”
  • Reaction vs. response. When things don’t go according to plan, it’s easy to have knee-jerk reactions. Everyone can recall a time when we said or did something we later regretted. Learning different tools to moderate our emotions so that we can choose a wise response is part of cultivating resilience.
  • Build your self-confidence. Mastery helps to build self-confidence. I recommend doing something outside of the law where you can experience a sense of mastery. This may be signing up for a class such as painting, pottery, improv, yoga, martial arts, etc.

Think back to difficult experiences from your past and see what helped you overcome these challenges. Bring these tools into your life and fill your tool box full of different tools for increasing resiliency.

6. Recognize That Everyone Experiences Failure

One way you can cultivate resilience is by recognizing that difficulties, adversities, failures, and suffering are part of every human experience. When you’re in the middle of going through the experience, it can feel incredibly isolating. This is especially true in the law, where emotions aren’t always welcomed and we spend a lot of time creating a facade, justifiable or not, that everything is just fine.

Recognizing that many people face similar obstacles—or have faced and overcome them—may give you some comfort. Consider sharing what you’re going through with a trusted friend or mentor. Often, having someone truly hear you is enough to help you feel better about the situation.

7. Reframe Failure as an Experiment

What if you can reframe this experience not as a failure but simply an event in your life? It may be an unpleasant, undesirable event, but why label it a failure? When I think back to those events that I considered to be failures, they actually weren’t. If I didn’t fail the New York Bar, I probably wouldn’t have moved to Florida. If I didn’t get fired from my job, I probably wouldn’t have ended up in California, where I met my husband. Now we have a successful bankruptcy practice together.

We are so trained to fear failure. Is there something that can be celebrated about the experience? Is there something positive that you can take away from the event? What if, instead of seeing these experiences as “failures,” you can reframe them and see them as experiments? This way of thinking is common in Design Thinking, an approach in which you’re encouraged to come up with an idea, make a prototype, and test as many ideas as possible. There is no such thing as a failure in Design Thinking—just the verification or disproving of an idea or theory.

8. Feel the Emotion, Then Move On

When we experience these challenging life events, it’s perfectly natural to experience a whole host of emotions including shame, anger, sorrow, sadness, frustration, and doubt. These are very uncomfortable emotions, and we naturally want to avoid them.

However, avoiding your emotions is as useless as trying to shove a beach ball into the swimming pool. Soon or later, it will bounce back with more force. The way to work with these emotions is to allow yourself to be with them.

Here’s a healthy way of working through your emotions:

  • First, identify the emotion. Notice how it feels in your body. Does your stomach clench? Does your heart rate increase? Do you notice tension in your arms and legs? These somatic experiences give us a lot of information about what we feel. Instead of thinking about the emotion, for example, “I feel sorrow,” notice how sorrow feels in your body.
  • Next, set a timer for five minutes, lay down in a comfortable position, then notice whatever sensations you feel in your body. You can gently bring your attention to how you feel and practice diaphragmatic breathing. We tend to try and work through our emotions by thinking about them. However, thinking about how sad you feel will rarely help you to not feel sad. Being with your body sensations, experiencing sadness, and releasing the physical sensations will go a long way in helping you resolve your emotions.

There is a saying in psychology: “Move your body, change your thought.” If you find yourself trapped in your mind, unable to break away from the thoughts or emotions, do something to move your body. Consider practicing yoga, qigong, or other similar practices that combine movement with meditation. If that’s not for you, hit the weight room, go for a run, or swim some laps.

9. See Failure as a Preparation for Delight

Whatever setback you are experiencing today, you can’t possibly know the full extent of the long-term impact of your experience. Yes, it’s possible that getting fired from a job might impact your legal career negatively, at least temporarily. It’s also possible, however, that a job that’s perfect for you is waiting around the corner. As a young lawyer, you may feel as if every bump, every obstacle, every setback will bring a premature end to your legal career. Try to have a broader perspective. Your legal career will be long, and it’s highly unlikely that any single setback will permanently define who you are as a lawyer.

10. Find Support

The practice of law can be a very isolating experience. It can feel as though you’re the only one experiencing setbacks and everyone else is doing just fine. If you do not have people in your life with whom you feel comfortable sharing your difficulties, consider seeking professional help from a therapist.

Remember, your law career is a lifelong journey. It’s not a linear experience. Being a lawyer is hard. Practice being kind to yourself. Find healthy and constructive ways of practicing self-care.


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