Four Things Resilient Lawyers Do Differently

Only 30% of American workers are “engaged” at work. This is damaging to businesses, but for law firms, it can be devastating. The market for legal services, and clients’ expectations of and approach to law firms, are also changing. Law has always been and always will be a demanding profession based largely on an adversarial model to resolve (or try to avoid) the toughest disputes our society creates, often with really high stakes for all parties.

In recent years, changes in how legal services are delivered are making the practice even tougher. Virtual law firms are increasing, more projects are being given to contract attorneys or shipped overseas, companies are pressuring their law departments to manage many issues internally instead of sending them to outside counsel, and clients are demanding alternative billing methods.  Law firms need lawyers and professional administrative staff who are engaged and functioning at their best to meet these challenges.

Resilience skills provide the tools lawyers and law firm personnel need to successfully cope with the stressors outlined above. Resilience is built through a set of core competencies that enable mental toughness and mental strength, optimal performance, strong leadership and tenacity, meaning that resilient people are less prone to giving up when they experience setbacks.

According to clinical psychologist and resilience researcher George Bonanno, a central element of resilience is perception—how you perceive stress, challenge, and adversity directly influences how you will respond to any stress trigger. When lawyers think that they have the resources to deal with a stressor, they are more likely to view stress or adversity as a challenge; conversely, when lawyers perceive their resources to be lacking under stress, they may view stress as a threat. In fact, having a rigid, inflexible response to stress, change and adversity can lead to the following:

  • Increased errors and missing information and deadlines
  • A “protect my turf” mentality
  • Diminished collaboration and cooperation
  • More stress
  • Poorer work quality
  • Reduced collegiality and even an increase in incivility
  • Survival-based emotions and reactions like impatience, defensiveness, and hyper-criticality

Resilience has a strong protective function. You need resilience to effectively tackle everyday hassles like managing your workload, dealing with opposing counsel, or working through a challenging situation with your significant other. You also need resilience to bounce back and grow from the big stuff like losing a big client, a death in the family, or divorce.

Resilience also has been shown over decades of research to be a set of skills that can be learned, practiced and improved. Lawyers who develop resilience skills gain many benefits, including:

  • They can tolerate change, stress, uncertainty and other types of adversity more effectively than low-resilience lawyers do. They develop healthy coping strategies which are more likely to mitigate the impact of stress and adversity.
  • They are more likely to believe that they can produce results in their lives. And they are more likely to believe that problems can be solved as a result of their own efforts. These beliefs, in turn, buffer against developing a “giving up” mentality and learned helplessness.
  • They are more motivated to achieve in many different areas of their lives and are flexible in their ability to adapt to challenges, adversity, and changing life circumstances.
  • They more easily promote the development and maintenance of high-quality relationships, and they draw upon these connections when they need help coping with stressful life events.

Studies that have been done measuring the effectiveness of teaching and training resilience have found the following:

In the U.S. Army, David and Paula taught resilience skills to officers, drill sergeants and soldiers in the U.S. Army. The Army’s Technical Reports about the resilience training program show that officers who had higher levels of resilience were more likely to be promoted ahead of schedule, assigned the toughest jobs, and achieve the rank of brigadier general (a one-star general) or higher; rank-and-file soldiers receiving resilience training reported higher overall emotional fitness, good coping (“When I get stressed out, I problem-solve”), engagement (“I would choose my current work again if I had the chance”), friendship (“I have someone to talk to when I’m down”), and lower levels of catastrophizing (They disagree with the statement, “When bad things happen to me, I expect more bad things to happen”). Further, units with resilience trainers had significantly lower rates of substance abuse diagnoses and diagnoses for mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety (in some cases the reduction in these diagnoses was as high as 60%).


In general populations, the Penn Resiliency Project (PRP), a resilience training program developed by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, served as the template for the Army resilience training. The PRP has been evaluated in at least 19 controlled studies, and while a few inconsistent findings have been reported, the studies largely suggest that the PRP program significantly reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety and helped participants perform better. More importantly, in the studies that included long-term follow-ups, PRP resilience skill effects were found to last for two years or more.

The mental toughness component of resilience, in particular, has been shown to help prevent and alleviate burnout in a number of studies.

We have taught resilience skills and strategies to thousands of lawyers and other professionals around the world. We consistently find that the most resilient lawyers do these four things differently:

  1. They stay inspired. Meaning matters enormously at work; in fact, it’s a central source of motivation. Meaning also builds your resilience and your engagement. The most successful and resilient lawyers we have worked with are in it for more than a paycheck, because they see how their work has value and impact. Losing that motivation, energy and vitality is a recipe for burnout and makes working in the law feel a whole lot more like a chore instead of a calling.
  1. They think differently. When you experience a stress-producing event, what do you think to yourself about that event? Do you see where you have any control, influence, or leverage in the situation, or do you fold? Some people jump to conclusions about a situation while others maintain a flexible and accurate thinking style. Some people catastrophize—they let their worst-case scenario thinking get the best of them and it stops them from taking purposeful action. Resilient lawyers apply their law school “think like a lawyer” training in a beneficial way to modify their thoughts, emotions and reactions when they’re under stress to notice counterproductive patterns that might be undercutting success.
  1. They use stress as an opportunity to connect with others. Your stress response is actually meant to push you closer to resilience by causing you to reach out to others. Helping behavior actually serves as a stress buffer, and help given to others is a better predictor of health and well-being than indicators of social engagement or received social support. In fact, experiencing stressful events significantly predicts increased mortality among those who had not helped other people in the past year, but among those who had provided help to others, there was no association between stress and mortality.
  1. They give more than they take in relationships. A foundational pillar of resilience is maintaining high-quality connections with others, and your success depends on how you approach interactions with other people. At work, people differ in their preferences for reciprocity—their preferred mix of giving and taking. According to Wharton professor Adam Grant, takers like to get more than they give, givers are other-focused and prefer to pay attention to what other people need from them, and matchers are a blend, wanting an equal balance between giving and taking. Another benefit of being a giver has to do with meaningfulness. One study showed that being a giver was positively related to meaningfulness, but being a taker was negatively related to it.

One of the many benefits of developing a resilience practice is that the skills that create resilience reinforce and support each other. For example, when you focus on creating better relationships, you also increase meaning in your life because the interactions you have with the people who matter most are more high-quality.

In summary, resilience skills are potent, learnable, and have the potential to both insulate lawyers from stress and improve their overall life and work satisfaction.

About the Authors

Paula Davis-Laack, Larry Richard, and David Shearon are the founding partners of Lawyer Strong, a firm that provides resilience training to lawyers and other professionals within the legal profession.


References and Resources

Download Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report here.

For more information on the Army’s CSF2 initiative, please visit here. To review a summary of these outcomes, please visit here. See also P.D. Harms, et al. The Comprehensive Solider and Family Fitness Program Evaluation Report #4, which can be downloaded here.

To learn more about the benefits of resilience, see: Andrew E. Skodol, The Resilient Personality in Handbook of Adult Resilience 112-125 (John W. Reich, Alex J. Zautra, & John Stuart Hall eds.) New York, NY: The Guilford Press (2010).

A meta-analysis of the Penn Resiliency Project can be found here: Steven M. Brunwasser, Jane E. Gillham, & Eric S. Kim, A Meta-Analytic Review of the Penn Resiliency Program’s Effect on Depressive Symptoms, 77(6) J. of Consulting and Clinical Psychol. 1042-1054 (2009).

To learn more about how resilience helps prevent burnout, see: Michael P. Leiter & Christina Maslach, Interventions to Prevent and Alleviate Burnout in Burnout at Work 145-167 (Michael P. Leiter, Arnold B. Bakker & Christina Maslach eds. 2014). New York, NY and London, England: Psychology Press.

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