Over the last week, several colleagues had outlined how they had felt disconnected from their law firms at various times. One lawyer described her difficulty in getting someone to explain billing practices at a new firm. In a nutshell, she didn’t feel she could ask someone to explain billing practices because they couldn’t bill for giving the explanation. Other lawyers described similar catch-22s and illogical situations which left them feeling disconnected and at arm’s length from their work environment.
A recent Harvard Business Review blog post by Mitch Joel (Six Pixels of Separation) talks about unlocking new ways to think about the work that we do and points to a series of TED talks with potential to open new thought paths. Collectively, those 10 talks have been viewed more than 21 million times. Perhaps some of them might unlock different ways to think about the work we do and how we work as lawyers?
One thinker on Joel’s list speaks directly to that sense of disconnection which seemed to characterise the discussions I had had with colleagues. Brené Brown is an author (Daring Greatly) and research professor in social work at the University of Houston. As Brown explains, “the ability to feel connected, is – neurobiologically that’s how we’re wired – it’s why we’re here.” When we don’t feel a sense of connection many of us will assume that the fault lies with us. We’re not fitting in because we’re not smart enough or assertive enough or insert-critical-attribute-here enough.
Brown undresses that private, often unexpressed sense of not being good enough and reveals its public label – shame. “Shame” is an emotionally charged word but its use is appropriate in Brown’s context. I’ll rely on “guilt” to make the point instead. What many of us secretly experience is a sense of guilt that we’re not good enough at some aspects of what we’ve chosen to do. The risk is that if you believe that you’re not good enough, it’s likely to be a self-defeating prophecy.
Brown’s research counters this sense of shame with a sense of worthiness. In contrast to those who feel disconnected, others believe that they are worthy of their connection to the group. According to Brown’s research, the difference between the groups isn’t at the level of performance. Both groups recognise that they have shortcomings that make them vulnerable. As Brown argues, what distinguishes the second group is that they have the courage to be imperfect. Their connection with the group isn’t based a sense of perfection but on a sense of being worthy of being in the group. As Brown summarises the difference, “That’s it. They believe they’re worthy.”
Can it really be as simple as just embracing vulnerability? Lawyers embrace vulnerability on a daily basis. That’s why there’s insurance. Indeed, the existence of insurance and mandatory coverage requirements seem to shout, “We know we’re imperfect. We’ve planned for that.” It would also be difficult to deny vulnerability in the context of an adversarial system that is geared to produce winners and losers. Nor is perfection the benchmark, assuming for a minute that perfection is possible in the law. Typically, a new lawyer swears an oath to conduct matters “faithfully and to the best of my ability”. Isn’t that good enough?
Coming back to Brown’s argument, the key is not to let vulnerability define you. We’re all vulnerable. Consequently, groups are a good if not necessary idea. It’s easier to ask for help if you’re in a group. It’s also easier to give help to someone in your group. Many great community service organisations have been built on this model and lawyers often thrive in such groups. Yet many lawyers I’ve talked don’t seem to be thriving in their workplaces. They see other people thriving in the same environment while they continue to labour under the fear that they themselves are not good enough. This situation is eerily reflective of what Brown’s talking about.
If you’ve been to law school, you’re not likely to be convinced by Brown’s assertion that the solution lies in just believing that you’re worthy. Over-exposure to the Socratic method doesn’t dispose lawyers to such leap of faith solutions. However, law school does train lawyers to ask more questions. So if you’re not convinced that belief bridges the gap between “not good enough” and “worthy”, start by asking different questions. Are you good enough to be better? Who’s good enough to help you get there? Does that person know you think they’re good enough? They might not know what their strengths are until you ask them to share their expertise. Again, we’re all vulnerable but it’s through making connections that we can discover our own and others’ strengths.