Lawyers, Are You as Optimistic and Resilient as you Need to Be?

Your big motion was denied, the judge was a jerk, the opposing counsel is a nightmare, your client is mad, your spouse is irked that you’ve spent all your time at the office, and your dog just pooped in your shoe to let you know how he feels about your inattention. This is just a regular Tuesday morning.

Our jobs (and lives) as lawyers are hard with regular obstacles, setbacks, and aggravations. Resilience is a job requirement to survive and thrive. Unfortunately, lawyers may have natural tendencies that dilute our resilience.

Do Lawyers Lack Resilience?

Law firm management consultant, Bruce MacEwen, cites personality assessment results reflecting that lawyers score low on resilience—averaging in the 30th percentile compared to the general public’s average score in the 50th percentile. Lawyers also score high on skepticism (the 90th percentile), which means they often are argumentative, judgmental, and a little defensive. Resilience may be needed just to work in the same office with each other.

Lawyers also tend to have pessimistic explanatory styles. An “explanatory style” refers to the manner in which you habitually explain to yourself why events happen. Those with an optimistic explanatory style tend to believe that negative events are temporary and not pervasive in their lives. People with a pessimistic explanatory style tend to view negative events as permanent and pervading their lives with global consequences.

Research indicates that many lawyers have a pessimistic explanatory style. For example, a 2004 study of 292 members of the North Carolina bar found that 53% had pessimistic explanatory styles (with males and associate-level lawyers being the most pessimistic), over 27% were at risk for depression, and 51% had elevated levels of perceived stress. Perceived stress was the highest predictor of depression, followed by explanatory style and work addiction.

Some degree of pessimism may be useful for lawyers to perform their jobs well. It may help them spot and predict risk to advise clients. But it can have serious negative effects. Pessimism has been linked with depression, stress, and anxiety, while optimism buffers against depression and other health problems.

Got Resilience?

Do you want to know if you have a pessimistic explanatory style? You can take a free assessment to find out. In the “Questionnaire Center” of the Authentic Happiness website, take the “Optimism Test.” (There also are a lot of other informative assessments there.)

You also can test your resilience using The Resilience Scale, which assesses five factors: meaningful life (purpose), perseverance, self-reliance, equanimity, and coming home to yourself (existential aloneness).

If you want to be inspired by a true paradigm of resilience, watch Rocky the Sisu Mouse in action!

Building Optimism & Resilience

Luckily, resiliency isn’t a fixed trait. It’s more like a resource or competency that can be cultivated. A number of factors contribute to resilience:

–  Optimism

–  Strong relationships

–  Emotional awareness and self-regulation

–  Flexible & accurate thinking

–  Problem-solving

–  Self-efficacy (belief in your ability to complete tasks/accomplish goals)

–  Impulse control

–  Empathy

–  Spirituality

To get started on building your own resilience, Martin Seligman’s book Learned Optimism is a great resource.  In Authentic Happiness, Dr. Seligman suggests teaching lawyers flexible optimism so that they retain the benefits of pessimism when needed on the job but are able to toggle to a more optimistic approach in other domains.

Another good place to start is investing time is in your personal relationships with family and friends. Significant research reflects that relatinships are very important to maintaining your resilience and well-being. When you get busy and stressed at work, don’t just hunker down–reach out.

Training for Resilience

Training is another route for lawyers to build resilience.  The U.S. Army considers resilience so important that it has begun training all of its soldiers. The U.S. Army’s Comprehensive Soldier & Family Fitness program was designed to bolster soldier well-being and performance and curb the growing epidemic of mental illness. The program includes “Master Resilience Training” (“MRT”), which focuses on many of the items in the above list of resilience factors.  Results of the MRT have been promising, providing evidence that training helps improve soldiers’ lives and reduce the odds of developing mental health issues. 

The MRT has four modules that cover topics including, for example, optimism, self-regulation and awareness, mental agility, identifying character strengths, cognitive behavioral therapy (“CBT”)-based techniques to dispute self-defeating and sabotaging thoughts, managing physical energy, cultivating gratitude, and building and strengthening relationships. The relationship-building aspects of the training cover, for example, positive communication skills, active-constructive responding, praise, empathy, offering help, and asking for help. Because the Army believes that soldier’s family relationships significantly impact job performance, it has begun offering MRT training to spouses as well.

Army Strong; Lawyer Strong

If MRT can strengthen the Army, it may be able to do the same for the legal profession. Resilience training modeled after the MRT (which already has been tested out in law firms) could benefit all lawyers and also law firm staff since they co-create their work enviornment. Some innovative law firms may even consider offering skills training to spouses since family well-being will better enable lawyers to immerse themselves in their work.

Spousal training also has the potential to bolster firms’ diversity efforts. While the idea hasn’t been tested, it’s possible that such training could help curb female flight from law firms. For example, one notable difference between men and women lawyers is that 77% of female lawyers have a spouse who works full-time outside the home while the same is true for only 24% of male lawyers. Add to this statistic the fact that women typically have greater home responsibilities than men, and the result is that a large majority of women lawyers have more strain than male lawyers caused by fewer personal resources at home.

A male spouse who recently received the Army’s MRT training said that it helped him appreciate his wife’s perspective: “I was in the military for 16 years and now our roles have changed, so this has helped me to learn to deal with the other side and now I understand their point of view, like picking up the kids from daycare and cooking,” he said. This suggests that improving understanding and spousal communication skills and other skills offered by resilience training may bolster women lawyers’ resilience and retention.


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