Grit. Fortitude in the face of struggle. Elasticity that allows a person to be stretched to an uncomfortable limit, and then bounce back swiftly and completely, often with forward trajectory. We hear a lot about resilience these days, with Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant’s tome on resilience, Option B, an instant best-seller. Yet we struggle to exercise resilience, because it is only in our toughest times that we have the chance to practice it. However, as lawyers, we are in the high-stakes business of helping our clients through their toughest times, so we must be in the business of cultivating resilience not just within ourselves, but also within our organizations and profession.
This starts with recognizing and valuing resilience as integral to success and fulfillment in the field of law. Having faced and survived crises in the past, a resilient lawyer has credibility with his or her client, who presumably is dealing with a terrible setback or significant concern resulting in the need to seek counsel. A resilient lawyer is proactive and constructive in the face of challenges and setbacks and better able to maintain momentum across the uneven landscape of most legal cases. Additionally, a resilient lawyer is happier and has a higher wellness quotient, leading to greater productivity and longevity. Finally, although the daily work of practicing law often requires a negative outlook, the other roles a successful lawyer often must play—as a leader, rainmaker and mentor—require a positive outlook, a growth mindset and resilience.
Sadly, as important as resilience is, it is relatively rare in the legal profession. Even more troubling is the fact that the legal profession is designed to stymie the traits and outlooks that lead to resilience. Dr. Larry Richard’s studies on lawyer resilience gauged the average resilience quotient for lawyers as being in the 30th percentile of the greater public. Dr. Richard observed with greater concern that “90% of the lawyers we test score below the 50th percentile!”
How can this be when lawyers are known to be anything if not steel-minded and persistent? For one, from law school into practice, lawyers are taught to be paranoid and skeptical, and are, in fact, rewarded for their pessimism, a trait linked with decreased resilience. A New York Times piece by Douglas Quenqua explores how lawyers are trained to seek out the worst-case scenario, which does not bode well for their own mental health. Relatedly, the wellness quotient for lawyers as a group is relatively low, indicating a lowered immunity to the setbacks they may face.
With resilience being as valuable as it is rare in the law, we must explore ways to turn the scarcity into abundance, and that starts with hiring.
Three Ways to Hire Resilient Lawyers
Resilience and the associated growth mindset can be detected in an applicant at different stages of the application process, but I’d like to suggest three: one focused on the application review stage, and two focused on the interview stage.
1. Look for the journey behind the application materials.
Resilience lives in the candidate’s journey, not in the outcomes to which resumes are often limited. In their first round of screening applications, many employers cursorily glance at a resume, focusing on cumulative GPA, prior roles held, degrees, and pedigree of educational institutions. The goal usually is to narrow the field, so any flaws, gaps and setbacks evident in the materials often are used to screen out a candidate.
Belinda Macauley, vice president of development and senior counsel at the American Constitution Society, looks to build balanced and authentic teams by looking for applicants who admit their challenges. She advises that “running down the resume does not give you that insight.”
Recognizing the limits of the traditional resume also means looking beyond the cumulative GPA for the richer story the applicant’s transcript tells. Did the applicant recover from a rough law school start to achieve high upper division grades? Is there a steady upward progression in the student’s GPA over time?
For a decade as a law school dean of students, I worked closely with students who struggled academically in their first year of law school. Many of these remarkable students quickly shifted from despair to developing a plan for improvement. I helped them assess their past preparation for what went wrong, but also for what they had done right. Even the student with the most dismal grades had been on the right track in some way, in some class, or with some specific skill. Giving some fair due to what they had done right often provided the boost they needed to pick themselves up, face their situations with courage, and take on their academic challenges with thoughtfulness and determination. Unsurprisingly, a number of these resilient students subsequently achieved significant academic success.
Students like this have a uniquely compelling story to tell prospective employers because their upper year grades showcase their academic ability, and their journey from unsatisfactory to often stellar performance showcases their resilience. But this requires employers to look at the transcript in full for upward trajectory instead of setting a prohibitively high cumulative GPA cutoff for who may apply or be granted an interview. Strict GPA requirements like the latter weed out many candidates who are both high-performing and resilient, when the goal should be to get these folks into the interview stage.
2. Design your interview questions to assess resilience.
In the interview, ask open-ended questions about challenges or setbacks the applicant has experienced. Brian Wong, partner and chair of the Diversity & Inclusion Committee at Pillsbury, shares that his firm provides significant training on behavioral interviewing (e.g., “Tell me about a time you…) so that their interviewers can elicit actual stories evidencing a candidate’s resilience as well as the related abilities to learn from experience. As a member of Pillsbury’s interviewing pool, Natasha Hanson Allen adds that she makes it a point to ask direct questions about how a candidate handled a setback in order to specifically assess their resilience.
You can similarly solicit stories of resilience by asking a candidate to “describe a setback you experienced and how you faced it.” Alternatively, you can ask a candidate, “Please give me an example of how you used your problem-solving skills to address a particularly challenging situation, whether professional or personal,” or, “Tell me about a time you failed at something.”
You can gather insight not only from the story the candidates tells, but also by how they tell it. Pay attention to the language the candidate uses in relaying their experience of setback. The more positive their language and confident their body language, the more likely they have some strong resiliency skills.
3. Exercise vulnerable interviewing.
Make the interview a safe space for the applicant to share their challenges by showing your vulnerability. Share some of the setbacks you have faced and how you surmounted them. Show humor and thoughtfulness in reflecting on your own or the organization’s missteps. Resilient people do not see their failures as defining them; instead they see their failures as a temporary situation from which they emerged stronger and wiser. They value opportunities for growth and progress, and they look for such opportunities in a job. If you are able to articulate challenges faced and how you or your organization surmounted those challenges, you will better attract resilient applicants.
Sheila Warren, vice president of strategic alliances and general counsel at TechSoup, gauges resilience not only by asking about a candidate’s past failures, but by leading into that question by providing an example from her own career of when she faced a setback. Ms. Warren has found that this vulnerability on her part “sets an expectation of how my team functions, where transparency and openness are very important. We don’t want people hiding from mistakes.”
By hiring folks who are experienced at owning mistakes, treating setbacks as temporary, and traversing trauma and tragedy, you are making your organization stronger. Your workforce will be more authentic, fulfilled, capable and healthy.
As an important bonus, you also will be increasing the diversity of perspective in a profession sorely in need of it. Many of my most resilient and empowered students were the ones whose journeys were the most challenging. Some had lost close loved ones. Some were diagnosed with cancer in the middle of law school. Some had faced significant financial challenges throughout their lives. When their classmates were worried solely about getting an A on a college exam, these students were worried about maintaining their job at the college bookstore, getting home in time to babysit their little brother and cook a meal for their aging grandparent while their parents worked a second shift, and finding time and focus to prepare for that same exam.
Often, these students were women and/or racial minorities who made it to law school in spite of tremendous explicit, implicit and internalized bias. They were folks with a disability who navigated a system designed without their unique gifts and needs in mind. They were LGBTQ individuals struggling for acceptance by society and often even their loved ones. These individuals had been stretched beyond comprehension and had not only survived, but had learned the magnitude of their strength and deepened the well of their wisdom.
This is the resilience we must build, recruit, and champion in our profession in order to best serve our clients and ourselves, because as much as we try, we cannot always stall the fall. “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” Sage words from Nelson Mandela, a principled and perseverant hero. A survivor. A lawyer.
About the Author
Neha Sampat is founder, career coach, trainer, and consultant at GenLead/BelongLab. Her current programs include owning one’s value/addressing Imposter Syndrome, capitalizing on generational diversity, building team trust, and busting bias. Neha can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.