Enhancing Attorney Resilience with Psychological Protective Gear


A major study published in 2017 by the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-being indicates that lawyers have higher incidence of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse than the population in general, and that these problems begin in law school:. A recent study indicates these difficulties occur disproportionately among female and younger attorneys. A comprehensive response is needed, especially for the work-family conflict that the study indicates some female lawyers are experiencing. But is there an equivalent of mental first aid that might be helpful in the meantime?

Military training has for years relied on the principle of three simple things to remember so that they can then be done under pressure, e.g. for battlefield wounds: “stop the bleeding, protect the wound, and treat or prevent for shock.” Is there something equally simple that would help respond to the wounds of law practice? Moreover, as the risks are foreseeable, can we do something that not only responds to injury but also can help prevent it?

The authors are a legal educator, a psychologist educating aspiring army officers, and a psychologist who as a lawyer extensively studied and advised attorneys. We were struck that the armed forces have long used protective gear for those in combat. Perhaps we could suggest a psychological equivalent of protective gear for law students and lawyers to enhance their resilience, specifically a virtual helmet, vest and boots. If so, why would they be helpful and what would they do?

What makes lawyers effective can also make them more vulnerable.

While law study and practice do not involve armed combat, they have their own perils, as noted above. Unlike battle injuries, the wounds that law students and lawyers can receive are often invisible, and sometimes self-inflicted. One reason is that law students and lawyers are educated in important skills and practices that help them perform well, but which can also get in their own way in other contexts, such as their personal life or the many other roles that law students and lawyers are increasingly asked to play in organizations and the wider community.

First is watchful skepticism and critical thinking, skills that attorneys use to help their clients avoid or respond to trouble. After working with thousands of lawyers over his career, co-author Larry Richard has found those skills can also lead many lawyers to be unusually thin-skinned, even to the point of dismissing a compliment because it can be seen as criticizing them in some way. (“You would look good in that….” is heard as, “What, you think I look like a mess now?”)

Second is reticence about work so as to protect privileged client confidences from disclosure, but which can also lead lawyers to be reluctant to open up about themselves to other people, leaving them often alone if they experience distress. (Indeed, lawyers are in the loneliest profession: https://hbr.org/2018/03/americas-loneliest-workers-according-to-research.)

Third is diligence in tasks, initially fueled by a competition for law school grades and job placements, and then the need to bill for time and respond promptly to clients. This aspect may not just be overwork, as many lawyers are also proud of their achievements and the effort that goes into them. Whatever the cause, the result is that many lawyers get stuck behind their desks, and some even regard sleep as expendable.

The combination of sensitivity to apparent criticism, isolation and over-work can mean that such lawyers then become much less able to respond to adversity when it arrives.

What can be done to aid attorney resilience in the face of these invisible but still real challenges? We suggest that lawyers wear psychological protective gear consisting of a helmet, a vest and boots.

Helmet – think a-head.

If an army travels on its stomach, lawyers rely on their brains; hence the helmet. (Michael Matthews has even written a book about it: Headstrong.) When we think of lawyer mental acuity, we think of judgment, expertise, problem-solving and competence.

But for lawyer resilience, it is important to think ahead – to prepare for adversity just as you would prepare for trial. When he was a young lawyer, a senior partner in his firm once told R. Lisle Baker that while abilities varied, the most important professional skill for success as a lawyer was preparation.

We suggest that preparation is equally important for resilience. While all of us hope to avoid trouble, it is better to be prepared than not. You do not wait for a fire to start to buy an extinguisher or insurance. It is not whether adversity will occur, but when, so be ready. Here are three ways to prepare:

  1. Appreciate what’s working well. Critical thinking and skepticism can be offset – especially when they turn inward – by experiencing some positive emotions which can be like a bank account that can be drawn upon. Some positive emotions may not arise on call – as they just happen to us – such as awe. But a few can be cultivated, like expressing appreciation. Or as the U.S. Army has taught its soldiers, “hunt the good stuff.” It can be as simple as looking for humor in a situation, expressing appreciation to those who we encounter for doing what might seem routine to them but is important to us, complimenting someone on a job well done, saying thanks before a meal for those who made it possible, or writing three good things that occurred each day and why they happened. Professor Baker’s students keep a written positive activity log – like recording billable time after they graduate – because it helps them remember their good experiences, the memories of which might otherwise be more easily forgotten.
  2. Train your brain to thank as well as to think. It is not enough to be grateful on occasion. Being grateful needs to transition from a thankful event to a regular practice so that it can become almost automatic. The armed forces know the importance of regular training. Those of us in civilian life can benefit from their experience. Rather than “one and done,” repetition can help the process of noticing and appreciating positive aspects of your day to become a positive practice, and such practice to become an attitude of gratitude that you miss if it is not there. That’s how you learned to brush your teeth every day.
  3. Know your Lawyer’s 911. Despite fire safety we still need fire departments. Who do you call when you are burning out? Preparation matters here, too. Nearly every state has a lawyer assistance program that can provide confidential counseling:. Counselors in such programs advise that much misery – malpractice, discipline, or personal tragedy – can be avoided by early intervention. Seeking help is a sign of strength. You would not advise your client to self-represent. Why should you?

Vest – open up, open out, and center.

Soldiers in combat wear a protective vest to protect their heart and other vital organs, just as they wear a helmet to protect their head. What might be the lawyer’s virtual equivalent?

  1. Partner up. Knowing those on whom you can rely – and knowing that they also can rely on you – is key. Lawyers have formed partnerships for years with this idea in mind. And while those you work with can be good personal friends, in addition, it can be an advantage to have someone who is like a fiduciary for you, but on a personal basis – who cares about you and your welfare. In the military, soldiers are encouraged to pair up with a “battle buddy,” someone who they can turn to and be turned to in return, an idea that is now being tried in health care. Why not pick a law practice buddy, someone you can confide in from time to time? This person need not be a trained counselor, any more than a swim lesson buddy needs to be a lifeguard. But this person can be more than an acquaintance and may even become a friend.
  2. Care why you care. First responders, like police and firefighters, as well as soldiers, know that courage can come from a sense of purpose and an awareness of their role; law students and lawyers can benefit from this as well. To paraphrase Friedrich Nietzsche, one who knows “why” can bear almost any “how.” There is a bonus as well from a more self-less approach: focusing on helping others displaces focusing on your own needs and can lead to greater connection – not only with other people, but also with personal and professional values greater than you are.
  3. Calm down so you can wise up. While lawyers cite precedent, a focus on the personal past can often involve regret, then rumination (and even ruination if it slides into depression). Looking out for trouble for clients can also lead to anxiety about your own future. Or a situation may come up when you are so flooded with emotion that you know it is not likely to end well. What to do? To calm down, you have several options. For example, you can focus literally on some part of your body rather than your thoughts, like standing consciously on one foot and then the other as a way of drawing attention to something involving a physical sensation, in effect giving yourself a present of your presence. (This is an application of being mindful in the moment, as the practice of mindful meditation itself can be of long-term value in enhancing focus.) Then once you are centered, it is easier to cross-examine your own negative thinking to see if it is true. If that is too difficult, simply name the emotion you feel and start counting. Thomas Jefferson once said, “When angry, count to 10; when very angry, count to 100.” The reason is simple. Counting requires your executive function; emotion involves your limbic system. Once this pause gains you a little perspective, you can ask something as simple as what are the odds of this (awful thing) happening, really? Just doing some risk assessment for yourself as you do for your clients can be a help. We make such judgments every time we decide to carry an umbrella. Why not use our legal skill to assess our personal risks as well? (It may be helpful to practice these techniques on minor matters so they will be more available when more serious ones arise. See Helmet above.)

Boots – Not only made for walking, but also to take off.

Boots bring to mind their help in traversing difficult terrain, and the determination to keep moving. Lawyers can relate to this idea as we often try to “power through” a challenging assignment. As noted earlier, however, law is among the most sedentary of professions. Wearing your virtual “boots” is an invitation to take care of your body and get some physical activity into each day. Anyone can do some exercise to improve strength, flexibility and endurance, as well as posture. We suggest, however, that the first step is to get more steps into your day. Unless disabled, in which case an alternative form of activity will be needed, walking is simple and easy to do – and do more of, with benefits to the mind as well as the body.

It may involve taking the stairs at your office, or walking down an internal office corridor to talk with, rather than just email or text, a colleague. Even better is to get outside where you can walk in some green space.

We also suggest that you think of your “boots” as not only made for walking, but also an invitation to stand down for yourself as well as stand up for your client. Soldiers can be at attention in formation for a while, but good commanders know that the soldiers will be more effective if they can also stand at ease. Even wild animals know the importance of recovery time after being chased by a predator and surviving. They pause to rest. We should, too. But because lawyers are so client-centered and achievement-oriented, their boots are always on, so it may take some conscious effort to take them off. Here are three ways.

  1. Take a vacation to aid your vocation. When Justice Louis Brandeis was asked why he took a month off in August when he was so busy, he responded, “Because I can get 12 months’ work done in 11 months but not in 12.” While it may seem idyllic to think of a month off, how about one minute in 12, or five in 60? An old soft drink ad used to say: “The pause that refreshes.” Good advice, even without the beverage.
  2. Make downtime into uptime. It is easy to think of “downtime” as checking email or social media, when it is still using your brain on fluff. Remember that we have two nervous systems – the sympathetic one for aroused activity – and the parasympathetic one to rest and digest. Too many lawyers pride themselves on powering through when they should be powering down. A good night’s sleep (see below) can often mean a better decision the next day. In other words, a star performance involves some time off stage.
  3. Take a break because your body will remember – even if you don’t. The zone of optimal functioning lies between lethargy and hyperactivity, but that itself cannot be sustained indefinitely. As lawyers we are used to compartmentalizing, but our bodies remember emotional overload, often at a level below consciousness. In addition to exercise, here are two other dimensions that military training emphasizes that can translate into your life as a lawyer and make you hardier: more sleep and better nutrition. It is particularly difficult to make good judgments about yourself – or for your client – if you are deprived of sleep and good food. Sleep is often the most ignored and most important of the exercise, nutrition, sleep triad, and it can be enhanced by exercise and proper diet.

In short, rest, vacations, time outside away from gadgets and screens, as well as conversations with friends and family (that are not arguments or depositions) all help your body recover from arousal for action or work. In summary, you have less risk of dying with your boots on if you take time both to walk vigorously with them on – and then take them off.

Conclusion – try wearing your own psychological protective gear.

We believe our psychological protective gear can be helpful, though it should be tried on to see if it fits. But we also believe that, like combat protective gear, the three parts will work best when each is worn in combination. Plan ahead (helmet) for exercise (boots on), and do it with friends (vest). Or do the same with breaks: interrupt a coffee break (boots off) by listening attentively to a colleague about their life outside the law to build a higher-quality connection (vest), rather than just pass by lost in thought. “Wearing” parts together can help make you more resilient than relying on one part alone, helpful as it may be.

While we may not experience armed combat, all of us can put on our own psychological protective gear. Wear it well and it can help you be more resilient when adversity arrives, as it is not a matter of whether a challenge to your resilience will arise, but when.

About the Authors

Lisle Baker (lbaker@suffolk.edu), LL.B., is a law professor at Suffolk University Law School in Boston, MA, where he teaches a course in Positive Psychology for Lawyers, described in his article, Designing a Positive Psychology Course for Lawyers, and the author of Educating Lawyers for Courage and Compassion as well as Brains: The Wizard of Oz Was Right.

Michael D. Matthews (mike.matthews@westpoint.edu) PhD, is professor of engineering psychology at the U.S. Military Academy, and is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association and the Association for Psychology Science.

Larry Richard  (drlarryrichard@lawyerbrain.com), JD, PhD., is an organizational psychologist and the founder and principal consultant at LawyerBrain LLC. He is regarded as the leading expert on the psychology of lawyers and is at work on a book on resilience.

The authors gratefully acknowledge the help of Samantha Fowler ’22, Sophia Scarcella ‘22, and Caroline Ryan ’23, students at Suffolk University Law School, as well as Anna Katherine Wherren, a reference librarian at Suffolk University Law School, in the preparation of this article.

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