If we said to you that much of the stress and poor wellbeing felt by lawyers on both sides of the profession had one cause, would you be curious? And if we told you that the solution is already within your reach, would you take it?
Of course, you would. You’d be foolish not to. So read on.
The common cause of lawyer stress and poor wellbeing
What’s the common cause? It’s simple. A lack of something. Something that you need.
Let’s call that something “resource”. Lawyers, just like other people, get stressed when they feel under-resourced for the task in hand. Think about it. You have a deadline to meet, but your head starts spinning because you don’t think you can get it done in time. You have a massive case to prepare, and its complexity seems so overwhelming that you can’t make a start. You have a tough negotiation to conduct, and your stomach is tied in knots with anxiety about entering into conflict with your opponent. You spend days dreading a meeting with a high maintenance client who always seems to send your stress levels through the roof.
None of these situations is inherently stressful. They are only stressful if you feel ill-equipped: if you don’t have the skills you need to tackle the task with a sense of ease. In these examples, the skills might include building self-esteem, setting boundaries, creativity, delegation, problem-solving, chunking, managing internal triggers. Also, consider what arrives when we stand in relationship with others: handling toxic communication, building rapport, staying present, empathy, intuition, self-soothing, and so much more. These skills bridge the gap between the where you are and where you need to be. They provide the missing resource.
Knowledge vs skills-based training
Now here’s a question: how much of your training did you spend learning and developing these skills? Not much. And that’s not surprising really. Conventional legal training emphasises knowledge over skills, outcomes over process. This is also the case in so-called “practical” training. Training on how to draft a contract, how to negotiate, how to perform advocacy, tends to focus on the output – what a “good” contract, negotiation or piece of advocacy should look like. We are told, “It should be like this”. It is as though we were all robots capable of being programmed to deliver reliably, time after time; as though we start each day as a clean sheet that can mirror to perfection the behaviour of our trainer.
It is not surprising that lawyers are stressed. They are trained to be stressed.
A different world awaits
You may have noticed change gathering pace in the last few months.
Imagine a world where things are different. A world where you have been trained in core skills competencies to resource you in legal practice. Skills you can call upon for support whenever you needed them, that you can learn, improve and refine over the arc of your career. Skills that will gain traction as your career develops.
Imagine feeling fully resourced in your work. How would that affect your performance? How would it change your wellbeing? Right.
The solution: four core competencies
Here is a solution for lawyers and law firms that is within reach: skills training based around four core competencies that support lawyers and firms to do their work better and with greater ease. The four competencies are self-awareness, relationships with others, communication skills and problem-solving. Pause and think about the last one: lawyers are asked to solve problems, what problem-solving tools are we taught? All of these competencies can be taught, learned, practised and applied in legal work. We know this because we have done it: the learning, the practice, the application – and the teaching.
Imagine being trained to develop an awareness of your behaviours and processes and how they impact your work and wellbeing. Imagine learning essential tools and skills for self-regulation. Skills that enable you to understand different parts of yourself so that you can avoid the self-saboteur. And then invoke a secure self: manage stress, resource yourself from within, manage your triggers and triggering behaviour. Discover your blind spots, acquire an understanding of what best supports you in your working relationships, as you become comfortable with setting boundaries, delegating, and conflict resolution. Believe it or not, there are ways of addressing behavioural traits commonly found amongst lawyers: perfectionism, imposter syndrome and self-esteem issues.
The days when you just whined about it on LinkedIn or nodded in agreement as you read another article about the perils of these issues are fast becoming the remnants of a bygone era.
When applied to the personal, the systemic lens enhances your awareness, and the seemingly intractable patterns of belief about who you are or how life must be finds resolution. Imagine how agile and effective you could become with this understanding of who you are.
Now imagine how it would feel to be a skilled communicator, handling challenging or uncomfortable situations with greater ease. Perhaps you are someone who likes the idea of learning and utilising skills like that improve your overall performance? Active listening, rapport building, non-verbal communication, understanding the hidden dynamics in play—harnessing the use of hidden language patterns, metaphor and storytelling. Imagine the power this could bring to your practice.
Relationships with others
Lawyering is all about relationships with people. Successful lawyers understand what supports healthy, resourceful relationships and what undermines them. They approach relationships with purpose and intent. Successful lawyers are confident at building empathy, they have the agility to adapt their attitude to the needs of each particular relationships, and they see the hidden dynamics created by systemic loyalties. They know the importance of using alignment to foster stronger relationships, and they create the safe spaces needed for teams to flourish. A healthy law practice is grounded in strong relationships.
Lawyers solve problems, and excellent lawyers employ a range of skills to find solutions. Their abilities draw on creativity, the wisdom of the subconscious, a trust in intuition and phenomenology, and they exploit the force of spatial dynamics. These lawyers appreciate how different mindsets and questions can close off or open up new possibilities, and how teams can be supported to increase their creative and problem-solving potential. Solving complex problems and charging high fees go hand in hand.
It’s time for a new narrative
It’s time to shake up legal training and bring it in step with the modern world. It is time to relinquish old narratives about law as a stressful profession and law firms as unforgiving monsters. It is time to let go of the secret delights of all-nighters and the weekend drinks binge “because I’ve had a hard week.” These are disempowering cliches that hold lawyers in a secret pleasure of playing the victim. In doing so, they deny their agency and ignore what motivates many lawyers to join the profession in the first place: a desire to help others, the thrill of contest, the satisfaction of challenge, the wish to make a difference.
Instead, let’s start a new narrative where lawyers are renowned for having personal skills to match their legal knowledge. Where lawyers call upon the resources they need whenever they need them, and warning signs of stress trigger the learning of skills rather than the finger of blame. A place where we can enjoy what we do and gain pleasure from it, and where clients receive an excellent service from lawyers whose skills are well suited to the task in hand. Your clients deserve this. And so do you.
The authors are co-founders of The Libra Partnership, providing coaching and training to the legal profession.