Developing Resilience Among Lawyers & Law Firm Teams

September 01, 2018


In urging legal institutions to place an emphasis on resilience, the ABA’s National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being report, The Path to Lawyer Well-Being, Practical Recommendations for Positive Change, noted, “resilience … derives from a collection of psychological, social, and contextual factors—many of which we can change and develop. These include, for example, optimism, confidence in our abilities and strengths (self-efficacy), effective problem solving, a sense of meaning and purpose, flexible thinking, impulse control, empathy, close relationships and social support, and faith spirituality.” 

The report suggested that the legal community model its resiliency efforts on programs already developed by other entities, including the U.S. Army’s Master Resilience Training program. That program starts with old-fashioned goal setting.  If, like me, you’ve been around long enough to recall Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989), this portion of the Army’s program actually sounds extremely familiar. By starting with “end in mind” goals that are specific, measurable, and achievable, resilient people create over-arching purposes that help them stay focused and move forward even in arduous circumstances.

The Army’s program posits 12 unique resiliency skills. To make them more relevant to the legal community, I’ve reframed these skills, including the following three:


Lawyer Resiliency Skill 1:  Activate your inner Perry Mason

(or Ally McBeal, Vincent Gambino, Denny Crane or Ellen Parsons)

Every successful lawyer collects information and data, examines that material from multiple perspectives, and checks for errors in thinking that might impact his or her ability to achieve a client’s ultimate goal(s).

To build resiliency, lawyers should use these same skills to examine their thought processes and avoid thinking traps.    

Psychologist Albert Ellis is credited with creating the ABCD Model for responding to adversity. Based on a belief that thoughts often determine feelings and behavior, this cognitive behavioral model helps users examine their thought processes. Once thoughts, beliefs and consequences are identified, users of the model dispute any beliefs that are unfounded with evidence.

An associate might use this model in the following manner:

Activating event:  I just received another huge assignment with a short deadline, and I already feel pushed to my limits.

Beliefs:  I can’t stand this. I never have enough time to do everything as well as I think it needs to be done; no one appreciates how hard I’m working. 

Recognize Consequences:  I feel anxious and on edge. I can’t focus on anything. I’m losing sleep. I’ve become argumentative at work and at home. And I know that I’m probably drinking more than I should because I’m stressed to the max.

Disputation:  I have met my internal clients’ actual needs. I continue to receive key assignments, which is a good indication that I’m also meeting their expectations. I need to keep my tendency toward perfectionism in check.

The ABCD Model can be particularly useful in identifying “thinking traps”—black-and-white patterns of thinking that tend to emerge, especially in periods of stress or anxiety.  To help uncover thinking traps, lawyers should regularly ask:

  • What’s the evidence that supports the conclusion I’ve reached?
  • Did I clearly express my wants, needs and expectations?
  • Did I ask for information?
  • How did others and/or circumstances contribute to this situation?
  • What’s my contribution to this situation?
  • What can be changed?  What can I control?
  • What is the specific behavior that explains this situation?

In answering these questions, users of the ABCD Model examine deeply held beliefs that contribute to out-of-proportion emotional reactions and evaluate the usefulness of these beliefs. Psychologists Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte refer to these beliefs as icebergs because “[they]are usually outside our awareness, deep beneath the surface of our consciousness.”  (See K. Reivich and A. Schatte,  The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles (2003)).

Examples of iceberg beliefs include:

  • I should succeed at everything I put my mind to.
  • People must respect me at all times.
  • Women should be kind and supportive.
  • Men don’t show their emotions.
  • Failure is a sign of weakness.
  • I must never give up.
  • Only weak people can’t solve their own problems.

Among lawyers, the most frequent iceberg that I encounter is the belief that they and their work must be “perfect,” a standard that is impossible to achieve.

While it is often difficult to shut off iceberg beliefs, it is possible to avoid a major collision by spotting the belief. As lawyers become more aware of their icebergs, they can understand the basis for past reactions, and most importantly, acquire the ability to respond to future events with less stress and aggravation.


Lawyer Resiliency Skill 2:  Accurate problem identification

For the ABCD Model to work, lawyers must accurately identify the activating event or problem that has caused some adversity. While you might think that problem identification is second nature for legal professionals, I find that, when interacting with colleagues at work, many lawyers rely upon assumptions.

I’ve heard the following scenario play out in law firms across the country. A junior associate tells a supervising lawyer of the associate’s intent to take a vacation. In too many cases, a nonrefundable airline ticket has already been purchased, and the associate has approached the partner at the very last minute. When the partner says, “I had no idea that you planned to be away from work. I wish you had given me some notice,” the associate responds, “I checked the firm’s policies. I’m due vacation.” Everyone leaves the meeting frustrated and angry. The partner complains that the associate is just another Millennial, who has no sense of responsibility or dedication. And the associate grumbles that the firm only cares about the number of hours that he or she bills.  

To build resilience, lawyers must bring the same problem-identification skills that they use with clients to their internal interactions. Rather than becoming entangled in a particular adverse event, lawyers should consider all aspects of an interaction. The following questions may help all participants make an accurate assessment:

  • What is the actual problem?
  • What caused the problem?
  • What did I miss?
  • What’s the evidence?
  • What really caused the problem?
  • What can I do about it?


Lawyer Resiliency Skill 3:  Develop assertive communication skills

While law schools have long provided instruction in the law and legal theory, few teach basic communication skills. Yet, assertive-communication skills are critical to any lawyer’s success. 

The U.S. Army’s Master Resiliency program uses the IDEAL Assertive Communication Model developed by the University of Pennsylvania’s Psychology Department. The model is based on the premise that all assertive communication is confident (those involved in the communication believe they can address the situation and are composed), clear (messages are easy to understand and not exaggerated) and controlled (participants “track” each other and modulate their message as necessary.) It is particularly useful when conflicts or challenges must be addressed.

Key components of the model include:

Step One:       Identify and understand the problem.  (See above).

Step Two:      Describe the problem objectively and accurately.

Step Three:    Express your concerns.

Step Four:      Ask the person for his/her perspective and then request a reasonable  change.

Step Five:       List the positive outcomes that will result if the change is undertaken.

In our previous example, the partner could use this model to explore and explain the importance of the associate’s availability during the time in which the associate has booked a vacation. The partner and associate might be able to negotiate a way for the associate to complete needed work from a remote location. Simultaneously, the associate could use this model to reflect upon the fact that he or she is now part of team and a contributor upon whom others rely. While the firm may or may not be able to accommodate the associate’s current plans, everyone could agree on some future break. The associate merely needs to provide adequate notice and time for the team to plan a work-around.

It is worth noting that the Mayo Clinic has identified assertive communication skills as an important tool that can help individuals control stress and anger and improve coping skills, something that we all seek to accomplish in the legal community.

One quick FYI:  As my previous example suggests, despite the fact that members of the Millennial Generation have now moved into management, I continue to receive requests from law firms for programming that will address generational issues. I am always delighted to discuss the factors that have shaped the work perceptions of unique generational cohorts. I believe, however, that many of the points of conflict that continue to emerge in workplaces are related more to assertive-communication failures than to true generational strife.  



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