From Resist to Resilience
How to build strength and adaptability in today’s legal practice.
Lawyers are famous for being risk averse and eschewing change. Yet, in today’s constantly evolving world, lawyers cannot hide from the realities of the modern legal industry.
“The legal profession is facing more rapid change in a more diverse set of areas than ever before in history, and the acceleration is mind boggling — it’s staggering,” says Gerry Riskin, Management Consultant and Founder of Edge International.
Key to thriving in this changing legal world is building one’s resilience and adaptability. People who are resilient and adaptable have self-control, says Dean Becker, Founder of Adaptiv Learning Systems. “It’s the ability to relax at the edge of uncertainty,” he says.
This article will explore resilience and adaptability in the legal profession, why such skills are critical for successful practice, and ways that law firms can foster these skills.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE RESILIENT AND ADAPTABLE?
Resilience and adaptability go hand in hand. “Adaptability is an important feature of resilience — people who are able to build their resilience find that they’re more adaptable,” says Paula Davis-Laack, JD, MAPP, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of the Stress & Resilience Institute.
Three characteristics that consistently predict adaptability are cognitive ability, conscientiousness (or grit), and openness, according to Shonna Waters, Regional Vice President, Behavioral Science at BetterUp.
“People who are more conscientious are willing to struggle more through uncertainty and difficult tasks, and those who are open are more prepared to revise their initial approaches based on experience or other information,” she says.
“Our clients are working on things that are much more complex, making it much more difficult for one lawyer to handle all of the client’s matters, which is forcing us to collaborate — a skill we haven’t been taught in law school.”
WHY ARE LAWYERS LOW IN RESILIENCY?
According to a report by Dr. Larry Richard in the early 2000s, lawyers, on average, scored in the 30th percentile in resiliency as compared to the general public’s average score of 50 percent. This deficiency has two potential culprits: skepticism and lack of sociability.
“What we know from the resilience research is that two of the biggest things that build resiliency are having a flexible thinking style and building relationships,” says Davis-Laack.
Given lawyer’s training to issue spot, it is no wonder that they think critically about issues. “Lawyers are inherently skeptical,” says Davis-Laack. But this same cynicism that helps them tackle legal issues may impede lawyers as they strive to succeed in the modern workplace.
On top of their skepticism, lawyers score low in sociability, says Davis-Laack, which may make it difficult for them to build relationships — a critical skill for optimal resiliency.
WHY IS RESILIENCY SO IMPORTANT FOR TODAY’S LAWYERS?
Resiliency and adaptability skills may boost client relationships, personal job satisfaction, ability to prepare and perform.
Evolving professional and client demands are changing the legal practice, requiring lawyers to respond and adapt. “Our clients are working on things that are much more complex, making it much more difficult for one lawyer to handle all of the client’s matters, which is forcing us to collaborate — a skill we haven’t been taught in law school,” says Davis-Laack, who adds that the 24/7 nature of modern practice and the pressure to innovate have also created greater pressure.
And, as Riskin notes, clients have become more innovative and resilient, and lawyers must keep pace. Of course, meeting client demands is reason enough to face resilience challenges head on. But perhaps even more important, building skills to adapt will provide lawyers with greater job satisfaction.
“People will be more engaged if they build their resilience skills,” says Becker. “They are going to feel better because they will have learned more than just how to do their jobs and remain more mentally centered — they’re also going to find ways to reconnect and see how the jobs they’re doing make a difference. Resilient people tend to be highly connected to their jobs.”
“People will be more engaged if they build their resilience skills. They are going to feel better because they will have learned more than just how to do their jobs and remain more mentally centered — they’re also going to find ways to reconnect and see how the jobs they’re doing make a difference."
Plus, adaptive strategies allow people to be more prepared for challenges. “Individuals, teams and organizations are better able to see what’s coming down the pike, react to it and be ready for the next challenge when they hone their adaptability skills,” says Waters.
Finally, lawyers who build resiliency see positive results in their performance. As Davis-Laack writes in her e-book From Army Strong to Lawyer Strong®, “Two studies examined how resilience impacted performance outcomes; specifically, observed performance and goal attainment. Both studies showed large effects for both observed performance and goal attainment. In addition, one study found that resilience training resulted in significantly higher levels of productivity.”
HOW CAN FIRMS FOSTER RESILIENCY?
Firms have a variety of tools at their fingertips to foster resiliency and adaptability among their lawyers and staff.
“The great thing about resilience and adaptability is it’s a learned skill set,” says Becker. “No matter where you are on the continuum, you can build it based on learning skills.”
Here are five ways firms can help lawyers build these skills.
1. Provide Training
Quality training is a valuable tool in terms of resilience and adaptability. In its report, “The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change,” the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being recommends “that legal employers provide education and training on well-being-related topics and recruit experts to help them do so.”
Research indicates that in-person training tends to be most effective for building resilience, says Davis-Laack. The most important factor is to tailor the training, says Becker: “There are a whole host of solutions, but the real key is to customize the methodology to the needs of the firm, and that can be anything from workbooks to a multiday training program.”
2. Don’t Forget the Top
Also critical for creating a resilient atmosphere is including senior lawyers in the training.
“For a firm that really wants to push resilience and adaptability as an initiative level, the best way to do that is top down,” says Becker, who recommends including firm leadership in live instructor-led trainings.
Firms also should be aware of their partners’ own adaptability skills. According to Altman Weil’s 2018 Law Firms in Transition, 58.4 percent of respondents rated partners’ adaptability to change as low, and 48.5 percent rated partners’ awareness of challenges of the new legal market as low.
Garnering buy-in from senior lawyers is also important, and this may mean making a business case.
“I think the first step is really seeing agility, adaptability and resilience as critical to outcomes in today’s world, core to how we need to operate to stay ahead in the market,” says Waters. “You don’t need to dive head first into these things — try experimental training.”
“The most natural reaction to a new idea is to find everything that’s wrong with it. Trained legal minds are extremely good at finding risk and avoiding it.”
3. Look Beyond the Individual
Firms should think broader than individual resiliency and consider systemic resiliency. “Teams are becoming a much more central focus for organizations, so adding a focus on team skills is really important,” says Davis-Laack.
4. Promote Flexible Thinking
As part of resilience training, Davis-Laack encourages lawyers to develop flexible thinking and an ability to dial back their skepticism when it’s not warranted. Lawyers should develop a “repertoire” of responses to particular situations. And it’s important that lawyers remain open to new ideas.
“The most natural reaction to a new idea is to find everything that’s wrong with it,” says Riskin. “Trained legal minds are extremely good at finding risk and avoiding it.”
Firms should encourage leadership to “cultivate and encourage” exploration of ideas rather than immediately shutting them down, as well as saying “no” when necessary, says Riskin.
5. Discourage Burn Out
Prioritizing stress management is also useful in fostering resilience. Firms can assist in preventing burnout by working with lawyers to “make sure they don’t burn out and make sure they recognize their strengths,” says Davis-Laack.
“You can be the best lawyer, but if you’re burning the candle at both ends, that takes a toll on physical health and mental well-being,” says Waters. Firms should strive to “help people develop the skills to demonstrate self-care and help those around them so the organization isn’t just successful today but continues in the future.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mary Kate Sheridan is a writer and attorney with JD from Columbia Law School, MFA in Creative Writing from The New School, and BA in English from Mary Washington College.