Much has been written about the mental health crisis in the legal profession. Certainly, external factors like billable hours and client demands play a large role in creating anxiety and stress in the profession; but there are also internal factors created by “thinking like a lawyer” that deserve more focus.
Even if they do not identify with a diagnosis of depression or substance abuse, many lawyers, like me, have gone through daily life feeling distracted and unhappy. Ways of thinking—like always expecting perfection or constantly looking for pitfalls—became engrained during my legal career without my awareness of how it was affecting other areas of my life. Our brain is a muscle, and what we train it to do matters.
It wasn’t until I started to explore different career identities outside of the law that I was able to identify how the internal world I created as a lawyer was influencing my own happiness and well-being. I first dipped my toe in the water of an alternative path by becoming a yoga instructor after the birth of my daughter. I kept working as an attorney, but a seed had been planted.
Unexpectedly, a unique opportunity presented itself to become the CEO and co-founder of a startup company. I fully shifted to a new profession and adopted a different mindset than I’d used as an attorney.
But when the pandemic hit and left me—as well as many others—wondering what career path would create real meaning, I shifted gears again and became a mediator and leadership coach. Today, I support attorneys through coaching and training and provide them with a safe space to grow and develop in new ways.
Here are some lessons lawyers can use to begin mindset shifts of their own.
Shift from analysis to mindfulness
In yoga, we often use a saying: Where your attention goes, your energy flows. Scientists now know that we can shape our brain through the way we think and behave. We can form new neural connections in our brains, and the more we practice new behaviors or thoughts, the more we reinforce these new pathways.
As attorneys, we’ve trained our brains to analyze issues and to mitigate risk. What could go wrong? We spend time looking for it, analyzing it and refuting it. You are better prepared in litigation if you’ve gone through every possible question that could expose a weakness in your case. While this strategy works in the courtroom, it can be difficult to “turn off” this way of thinking. Constantly analyzing can take you out of the present moment and keep you from witnessing the world around you. I used to walk to work and not remember a single thing I saw on the way because my brain was so busy figuring out the next problem to solve.
One way to shift out of analytical thinking is to practice mindfulness and meditation. Mindfulness is a quality of paying attention to the present moment. Meditation is a practice that trains you to be attentive, to often return to the breath or a mantra, to increase awareness and to cultivate mindfulness. Once you’re able to shift out of analysis—or any habitual way of thinking—into observation of thoughts, you create a powerful moment in which you can choose how you want to show up, or where you want to focus your time and energy.
After having my daughter, yoga helped satisfy my profound need to meaningfully reconnect with my body. I transformed my walk to work to a walking meditation, enjoying being in my body and using my senses to experience the world around me outside of my head.
Mindfulness is not incompatible with any skills that a lawyer is taught. But like any other skill, it must be developed. The key is to develop these skills and use them consciously, not run on autopilot.
Shift from perfectionism to a growth mindset
No matter the profession, mistakes will happen. Yet in the legal field, there is often the expectation that they won’t; perfectionism is seen as a virtue. But perfectionism makes us feel bad about ourselves and may keep us from trying new things. Fear is a poor motivator for success and for overall well-being. To be free from perfectionism, it’s important to know that that self-worth isn’t defined by work or by anything you do. Mistakes are a reflection of growth, not worth.
Adding to a damaging perfectionist mentality, intelligence is often viewed as a gift that some have and some don’t. But intelligence can be developed through learning, hard work and accepting feedback—sometimes referred to as having a “growth mindset.” There is often an emphasis on appearing smart or always having the right answer in the law instead of an emphasis on growth.
Working as a startup CEO gave me a crash course in getting out of the perfectionist mentality. I took the job with an objective of becoming comfortable with making mistakes and with failing. Instead of planning and perfecting an idea before you launch, there is an emphasis in the startup world on producing a very basic product and then continuing to develop iterative versions of it, getting real-world feedback while you go. It was uncomfortable—and ran counter to lessons from my career as a lawyer—but it was freeing to experiment.
Shift from winning to listening
Knowing how to convince someone that you’re right comes with the territory of being a litigator, but it is not a skill that translates into success in the rest of our relationships. When someone wins, that means someone else loses. Approaching communication in this way is a recipe for disaster. When I became a mediator, time and time again I saw that people need to feel heard and that creative solutions could be reached when they do. Yet it is impossible to focus on winning an argument and really hear the other side.
Lawyers might also be missing the mark in their client relationships. Some lawyers think that they need to “win” to be successful; while others appreciate that true success can come from fulfilling their clients’ goals, which often involves compromise instead of persuasion. In fact, research has shown that what clients really want is more effective communication with their lawyers.
Next time you’re in a conversation, ask yourself: “Who am I trying to be right now?” Is it someone simply trying to win? A trusted counselor? A supportive spouse? A good friend?
It may be a new challenge to learn these new ways of thinking. But the good news is that lawyers already have experience in training their brains. By practicing mindfulness, embracing a growth mindset and focusing on active listening, lawyers can improve their overall well-being.
As Nelson Mandela said, “I never lose. I either win or learn.” What if, as lawyers, instead of saying we lost a case, we shared what we learned instead?
As an employment attorney at Paul Hastings and subsequently at the U.S. Department of Labor, Andrea Gilliam witnessed workplace conflict daily that created stress. Determined to find a better way, she became a leadership coach and trainer for individuals and organizations seeking to cultivate more purpose and peace at work. Find more about Gilliam on LinkedIn or at AndreaGilliam.com.
ABAJournal.com is accepting queries for original, thoughtful, nonpromotional articles and commentary by unpaid contributors to run in the Your Voice section. Details and submission guidelines are posted at “Your Submissions, Your Voice.”
This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.