3 Essential Questions for Lawyers to Conquer Their Fears

Lawyers are constantly bombarded by challenges that naturally create fear and anxiety.   Many lawyers don’t recognize these fears and fail effectively to deal with them.  This causes lawyers to be unhappy and to provide poor quality service to their clients.  I identify many of these looming fears and present some practical tips for dealing with them.

The Legal Profession is Stressful

Is the sky falling?   Not really.   But, it may feel like it from time-to-time.

For sure, lawyers are in a profession that creates a lot of fear and anxieties.   These anxieties can negatively affect your relationships with clients, colleagues and supervisors.  Dealing with these fears and anxieties in a healthy way is essential if you are to be happy and productive in your work.

Poor coping mechanisms include drinking too much alcohol to relax, being snippy or yelling at people at work, eating too much and getting poor sleep. You can deal with this stress in much more productive ways and be happier doing so.

An article in the ABA Journal discussed the fears faced by lawyers and described them as follows:

Yet, lawyers often are imprisoned by fear.  They’re fearful that their cases are out of control.  They’re fearful of looking foolish.  They’re fearful of appearing weak.  K. Davis, Lawyers Shackled by Fear, Fear Not. ABA Journal, November 2015.

Let’s now identify some of the fears you may have been experiencing.   Some fears are unique to the particular work setting.

Fears Faced by Government Lawyers

Government lawyers have the unique fear that they will make the wrong legal conclusion and it will be in the press.   Government lawyers in Washington call this the “Washington Post Test.”   In other words, the question asked is:  if I’m wrong, could this end up in the Washington Post?  It is particularly embarrassing for a Government lawyer because when the mistake hits the national press, everyone knows about it.

Anxieties also are created when an Administration changes and there is a new political general counsel appointed and confirmed.   The first-line managers must quickly prove themselves to the new general counsel or risk losing their jobs.  

The Government lawyer is often placed in the position of balancing the desires of the boss on the one hand and trying to avoid a legal mistake on the other.   For example, Secretary Clinton could have asked for legal advice on her use of a personal server and email account.   The lawyers may not have found a criminal law that would be violated, although it may not have been the smartest thing to do.   Yet, her lawyers may have been trying to help her and did not assess the risks appropriately.

Any Government lawyer wants to make the boss happy.   I did; it’s natural and a part of your job.   Yet, a good lawyer will give sound advice and not be afraid to tell the boss “I wish that I could help you here, in my judgment the risks are too great; this will end up in the Washington Post.”

This is where knowing your core values and following them is essential. Otherwise, you are like a ship without a rudder.

This is a constant fear of Government lawyers.   It’s impossible to know what will blow up in the future.   It’s like walking on a land mine.

Any lawyer calls “balls and strikes” all day, but the ones made by a Government lawyer can hit the press and ruin a career.   When things blow up, Congress, the press and the Administration look for a scapegoat.   This creates anxiety.

Fears Faced by Big Law Partners

A law firm lawyer’s greatest fear:  do I have an adequate pipeline of work to keep me and my associates busy?   This is a constant nagging concern of many partners at a law firm.

Marketing and client development activities are needed to keep an adequate pipeline.

Yet, some economic forces are beyond your control.   For example, intellectual property district court litigation was down a little more than 20% in 2016.   There was an oversupply of lawyers to handle a smaller number of cases.   It’s tough in this environment to grow your business.

Law firm partners, like Government and corporate lawyers, are expected to be experts and there is little or no margin for error.   This also creates stress.   A lawyer doesn’t have the luxury to learn from her mistakes, if the client is paying a high fee per hour.   See my article on being confident in dealing with your clients, How to Handle Insecurities and Be Confident in Your Client Interactions!.

Clients understandably don’t want to pay high fees for lawyer training.   This is understandable.   As a result, mistakes and hours billed to learn are not tolerated in a law firm.   This creates anxiety and reduces the incentive to be creative and take risks.

Fears Faced by Corporate Counsel

Corporate counsel have the unique fear of being responsible for the corporate bottom line.  They must look at every decision and legal issue with its potential effect on the bottom line.

Lawyers are not trained to do this.   It creates a lot of anxiety because it requires the lawyer to predict the effect of a legal decision on the company’s business, which may be difficult to do.

Some companies make money from litigation and this creates its own challenges.   For example, non-practicing entities buy patents and then try to enforce them in court to earn huge damages.   This puts the lawyer at the center of the business.

In other businesses, the lawyers have to make certain that agreements cover all future possibilities.   Lawyers are expected to have a crystal ball and this creates anxiety.   It’s difficult to plan for all future contingencies.

Corporate counsel also serve at the pleasure of the higher-up executives.   If a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) retires, the new CEO may want her own general counsel and so on.   The general counsel could be let go based not on poor performance but merely because the new CEO prefers another person that she is more familiar with.

Being responsible for the effect of a legal decision on future profits and not knowing when and if you’ll be let go creates anxiety.

Some Level of Fear Creates Great Lawyers

Now that we have identified the fears, let’s talk about the consequences.   The first thing to recognize is that fear and anxiety are normal.   Without some level of fear, it would be difficult to motivate ourselves to complete a task and to do it well.   So, fear and anxiety are not only normal but productive in the right context and in a manageable amount.

Problems arise when we don’t understand or consciously realize our fears, when we let our fears control us or when we try to subdue our anxieties through alcohol or drugs.   You can be happy in your anxieties.  However, you must be self-aware and not avoid them.

Reality checks are important to honestly assess whether your fear response exceeds the severity of the situation or task.   Oftentimes when we are anxious, we allow our fears to snowball and consume us.   It’s better to take a deep breadth and step back from the situation to gain a more objective perspective.

As yourself:  on a scale of 1 to 10, how intense are my fears?

We can all have irrational fears (either the existence of the fear itself or a disproportionate amount of anxiety created by the event).   It would be a mistake to attempt to eliminate all anxiety or to ignore it.   To be happy in your work, you must recognize the anxiety for what it is and work with it.   I will discuss how you can do that below.

3 Questions to Conquering Your Fears

  • Is the fear rationale?

When I was young, I used to lay in bed at night worrying about not having enough money in retirement.   This was an irrational fear created, in part, by my childhood.   My parents never saved any money and I saw myself ending up like them.

Believe it or not, I read a self-help book that had a chapter entitled something like “I’m Over Here and You’re Over There.”   Sounds silly, but realizing that I was not my parents really helped me to reduce and then stop my anxious thoughts.   They were not grounded in fact.

  • Do I have all the information that I need?

Many times fears are brought on by our feelings of helplessness.   If we empower ourselves, the fear usually goes away.   Oftentimes, gaining more information is enough.

Developing a sense of mastery over the situation is the focus.   As noted by John Lande, “people who feel that they have more control over their situation are likely to feel less fear than those who feel that they have less control.”   John Lande, Escaping from Lawyers’ Prison of Fear, 82 UMKC L. Rev. 485, 493 (2014).

For example, if you lay in bed fearing that a deadline is approaching in a case, get up and research the due date.   Then, get some paper and a pen and put together an action plan for completing the task on time.   This will give you the sense of mastery over the situation that you need to subdue your anxieties.

  • Am I exercising and eating properly?

Proper exercise and nutrition are essential to feeling good and being relaxed.   Don’t eat junk food and sodas.   They don’t help.

Try to find time to get in some exercise and eat properly.   That will help!

Be Anxious and Be Happy

A certain amount of anxiety is normal and can propel you to reach your goals.   Anxiety is a normal part of life.   Learn to live with it and also to recognize when it’s getting in the way of your happiness and productivity.