The Resilient Lawyer

Janice has hit her stride. She has a busy practice in a speciality area of law at a large regional law firm. She is actively involved in the administration of her firm and weaves regular client development activities into the work day. She and her husband Nick, a corporate lawyer, have two young elementary school children. Janice is enjoying her family life and her legal practice. She would be the first to tell you that she feels stretched and like she is “acing” neither of these important areas of her life but she does have the sense that she is doing “good enough”.

The secret to Janice’s success isn’t that she has found some perfect balance between the areas of her life. The key is that Janice has built up her resilience. If there is one professional attribute you want it is this one: resilience. And like many things in our life it is something you can develop in yourself.

What is resilience? Some call it buoyancy. Others call it grit. You might break down, or fall apart, but then you get back up. You might feel stressed but you can handle it. Like building your biceps you can similarly build up your resilience.

Our resilience is supported in four areas of our life: physical, mental, social, spiritual.

The physical aspect of resilience is about taking care of your health by getting regular exercise, eating well, and making sure to get enough sleep. You manage your stress in the office by pausing to take a few slow deep breaths when you feel your tension rising. You practice yoga. Or work it out with a mountain bike ride on the weekend.

One lawyer I know recently told me that after receiving some bad news, she put on her sneakers and went for a run. She returned home refreshed and in a better state of mind.

What are you doing to release your physical stress? How are you taking care of your physical body? What action do you want to take in this area of your life?

Next is your mental state. Mental resilience can come from letting go of the need for perfect in all things and embracing the satisfaction of good enough. The meaning of good enough is for you to define. It comes from taking time to think about your life and decide what is important to you. What is good enough for you at work, at home, in your relationships? It might mean that some emails don’t get answered in the same day. It might mean that you decide to attend 2 out of 3 board meetings. It means you set boundaries. It means you decide what your standards are instead of trying to live by everyone else’s.

Another goal of mental resilience is to counter negative self-talk with a clear reality check, and some positive thinking. Next time, when you start to mentally berate yourself for some apparent failing, engage in some self-talk. When the negative thoughts begin to flow take a moment and ask yourself: “What is true about this situation?” “What would my wisest self say about this?” Or, “what would my best friend say about this?”

Harsh negative self-talk is all too common in the legal profession. Please see my Slaw article on Taming your inner critic for more information about getting a handle on your negative self-talk. Combatting the inner critic isn’t easy. If this is something you struggle with I recommend you consult a counsellor or a coach because with support there is a lot you can do to reduce mental anxiety and negativity.

Another critical element of resilience is found in your relationships. It means having close friends and loved ones who will listen to you grumble and groan and who will encourage you. In his book The Power of Habit Charles Duhigg references a study done of the Cadets at West Point and how they develop the grit to survive the harsh bootcamp experience. While the Cadets arrive at West Point with well-established discipline and strength large numbers still quit during the first summer. The ones who survive and excel find strength in their relationships with each other. One cadet tells it this way:

We started this thing where, every morning, we get together to make sure everyone is feeling strong. I go to them if I am feeling worried or down, and I know they’ll pump me back up. There’s only nine of us, and we call ourselves the musketeers. Without them, I don’t think I would have lasted a month here. (Power of Habit)

There are two lawyers I know at a large firm who I think of as very resilient. I will frequently catch them in each other’s office taking a moment for a catch up, or having the equivalent of the cadet bonding described above. To some it may seem like ‘wasted time’ but as a coach I know that those relationships and the support they give each other is a critical part of their overall success at the firm.

The fact is, human beings aren’t made to go it alone. Having close friendships in your workplace can be a huge contributor to your overall resilience.

Closely tied to this is the spiritual component. This can provide a significant support for your overall well-being. As a practicing Buddhist I know what a cornerstone that is to my resilience. My practice gives me access to a reserve of inner strength. I know that my friends of different faiths would say the same of their own spiritual practices. And in the absence of a spiritual belief it can be enough to have a clear set of values and principles that you live by. It might be that you access your spiritual side with time spent in nature, or, through other activities that get you out of your head and connect you with the bigger picture.

I encourage you to think about these four aspects of your life: physical, mental, relationships, and spiritual. Where are you strong? What aspects can you build up? Where might you benefit from some help or support? Where do you want to develop? I know so many lawyers who have shifted from easily stressed and overwhelmed to strong and resilient. Take action to build up your own plan for resilience.


  1. Oh…

    So that’s why my legal career went into the tank and I’m still recovering from it!

    (smacks forehead)

    Why didn’t someone tell me before I ruined my life in the law. Now I’m just a listless ghost of a human being waiting for death, haunting places that the living occupy…


  2. And I bet you thought it was because you didn’t believe what you heard on one of Tony Robbin’s TV programs.

    On the other hand, in “Janice’s” case it’s more likely because she didn’t watch and pay attention to Adam’s Rib. The connection to the movie is in something mentioned in the first paragraph of Ms. Wolf’s article.

    In my case? My plan for “resilience” revolved around (usually) paying for the privilege (?) of allowing people to shoot hard rubber objects at my body on the understanding that I wouldn’t move out of the way unless the object would miss the target behind me, regardless. I didn’t return to writing longish law articles that likely didn’t get read by too many people who ought to have read them until after I retired from the first approach. I’m sure there’s a koan in there, somewhere.