This article was first published in the Law Society Gazette
In the first of a series on emotional health for lawyers, Julian Hall takes a look at the key personal qualities that help us navigate stress
Practising law has changed hugely in the last 30 years, and with it, the associated pressures. Long gone are the large, wood-panelled offices, which both impressed and intimidated clients and juniors alike. Long gone, too, are the extended, boozy lunches sharing stories with fellow lawyers. Instead, there exists a high level of professionalism and a greater focus on profitability, combined with increased accessibility expected by clients – and a good deal less reverence from those clients. These factors change both the way we work and the way we need to deal with work pressures.
At Calm People we have a great deal of contact with lawyers of different levels, whether they are referring clients to us, or us to them, or through helping firms develop more emotionally resilient teams. The more we work with law firms, the more we notice common trends in the causes of stress. Which of the following do you recognise?
- Targets– turning in 6-8 billable hours per day
- Pressure from clients– wanting their (non-urgent) work done NOW
- Volume of work– too much piled on and no support from department or firm
- Interruptions– emails, phone calls, colleagues, partners
- Feeling undervalued / underappreciated
- Never being thanked
- Lack of control over work being doled out
- Unfair structures– achievements not getting rewarded
- Arbitrary rules– for example, you can have a maximum of 4 pens. If your red pen runs out, you need to bring it with you to claim another red pen. But if you want two red pens and no green pen, that isn’t allowed! (This is a real example cited by a solicitor during a workshop.)
- Rudeness– other lawyers, judges, court staff and so on
Underlying this, particularly in the city law firms, is a cut-throat competitiveness amongst junior members of the firm that wish to make partner level, which leads to the boundaries of human endurance being pushed further and further – and the longer this continues, the deeper the culture is embedded. As a society and an economy, we are demanding more for less. The need to be emotionally resilient has never been stronger.
Against this background, it is no wonder that at Calm People we are encountering more law firms than ever before in our work. The model for emotional resilience that we use is closely related to areas defined by Daniel Golman in his work on emotional intelligence. It states that to be emotionally resilient, we need to focus on awareness, optimism, perseverance, perspective and inner control. Key to this is that these are all areas that are within our gift to ourselves; they are firmly in our sphere of control.
This is the ability to know how you are feeling at any moment and why you are feeling that. It includes the ability to differentiate your feelings; for example, too many people display anger to cover up their feelings of fear or hurt or sadness.
Finding the positive aspects in most situations is a skill people can develop. It requires the next area, perseverance, but it is available to all. What it does not involve is making blindly optimistic wishes and prayers that set you up for short-term failure. I am a dreamer – some would say fantasist – by nature, but my dreams have steps and plans behind them.
A ‘never give up’ philosophy is essential. Recognising that things won’t always go well but not giving up at the first few knock-backs is vital. An important element is the fear of failure, which can drive some people to amazing heights and cause others to give up so that they retain an element of self esteem.
Resilience is born out of attitude and perspective. Seeing obstacles as challenges and being able to take responsibility for your own decisions rather than making yourself a victim are classic examples. Its does, however, go deeper than that, and includes the ability to have perspective on which experiences have brought you to where you are, and which ones will be useful in strengthening your resilience.
5. Inner control
There are many of us that would describe ourselves as calm on the surface but a maelstrom of conflicting emotions and competing priorities underneath. Linking in with awareness, this is essentially about being able to articulate and deal with feelings in a healthy manner. Self-regulation is not about suppression or denying your feelings, just as it is not about becoming an “over-sharer”. It also reflects the acknowledgement that you always have a choice and are responsible for the choices you make.
Underpinning these areas is your own internal vocabulary for your feelings and how you allow these often challenging aspects of your emotional health to exist in a healthy way. Your relationship with stress and how you deal with it, combined with your self-esteem and how you take responsibility for your relationship with stress and with yourself, are vital components for surviving and thriving in the 21st century. Through this series of articles I intend to gently pick away at different aspects of resilience and shine a light on ways in which you can make decisions and put in place strategies to build your resilience.
I think of emotional resilience as part of the makeup of a warrior. The skills and education that we acquire through experience and through our employers’ training schemes such as influencing skills, listening skills, as well as the higher level qualifications we hold, all build and strengthen the shield that each of us carries into battle on behalf of our employer and our clients. We can continue to build and strengthen that shield with further training, but if we do not take care of the being that holds the shield, then one day they may find themselves slowing down or unable to continue.
I could have started this article with a definition of emotional resilience. I prefer to end on it. For me emotional resilience is this: “My ability to deal with everything that life throws at me and still be capable of joy.” I think that is a position to aspire to and hope that you feel able to join me on the journey in that direction.