What are you afraid of?

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I spent several hours, Sunday before last, co-presenting a media training session for a group of in-house counsel. Among the many standard warnings we give to lawyers in these sessions is to proceed with caution around reporters, reminding trainees of the two ineluctable rules of the media:

1. Journalists are not your friends.

2. Nothing is ever off the record.

Now, that does tend to exaggerate the point for effect, and we did talk about the importance and benefits of developing a solid relationship of trust with selected reporters. But overall, we went heavier on the stick than the carrot. It’s better that lawyers be overcautious than undercautious when the microphone is live.

But afterwards, I admit, I found myself wondering if we tend to go too heavy with the warnings about dealing with reporters. Some are untrustworthy and will twist your words to get a juicier story and a better shot at publication, it’s true. But many of them are just doing their jobs, the same as lawyers, and needn’t be approached as the enemy. An abundance of caution can easily creep over the line into fear, defensiveness and aggression, none of which serve your purposes very well.

I was reminded of this when I read a thought-provoking article in Texas Lawyer, written by professional coach and psychotherapist James Dolan, about the role of fear in the legal profession. His thesis is that lawyers live in fear — as his patient puts it at the start of his article:

“Hell, the whole profession is about fear. Fear of not billing hours, fear of not bringing in business, fear of losing business. Fear of not making partner. Fear of being in trouble with my wife for working too much, and, of course, fear of being in trouble with the partnership for not working enough.” He stopped for a moment, letting his own words sink in. “And it started in law school. The whole thing runs on fear. I’m sick of being afraid all the time.”

I think this is an important point, and one that we don’t talk about enough in the law. Much of the normal activity in our professional lives is powered by fear: of the client, of the partners, of the billable hour target, and of failure, to name just the biggest ones.

- Law students early on develop a fear of their growing debt loads and, consequently, a fear of not getting a job or making enough money to pay their bills. This is on top of the fear that they’ve chosen the wrong line or work and are wasting tens of thousands of dollars per year.

- New lawyers suffer from “impostor’s syndrome,” the fear that they don’t have the skills and knowledge to equal the power and responsibility of a law license, and that they’ll soon be caught out for their ignorance and drummed out of the profession.

- Large-firm lawyers are afraid they won’t bill enough hours, that they’ll screw up an important client’s case, that they’re wasting crucial skill development years on grunt tasks, that they won’t make partner, that they’ll make partner but it won’t be worth it, and that their personal lives are being sacrificed.

- Small-firm and solo lawyers fear they’re walking a tightrope with no net, afraid of low-cost competitors taking away their clients, out-of-control overhead costs, shrinking client bases, the absence of a succession plan, and not being able to self-fund their own retirement.

- In-house and public-sector lawyers aren’t immune, either: especially in recessionary times, they’re afraid of cutbacks, job losses, “right-sizing,” and other manifestations of the risks you face when you have only one client and you’re on its payroll.

And fundamentally, there are also the fears that every lawyer has, fears endemic to the profession.

1. Fear of clients: that they’ll be unreasonable, demanding, dissatisfied, disloyal, vengeful, refusing to pay or even threatening you physically.

2. Fear of other lawyers: losing their respect, being barred from their partnership, being sued for your mistakes, failing to meet expectations.

3. Fear of the law: unable to keep up with everything, the fear that a case or statute has changed what you thought you knew and wrecked your reputation for competence.

4. And most perversely of all, fear of time: from the limitation period invisibly ticking away to the filing deadline approaching too fast to the days running out of hours left to bill.

Lawyers do live in fear. Is there anything we can do about it? Dolan thinks not, and focuses on understanding and accepting “the tiger” in your professional life. I would take a slightly different tack: lawyers are so fearful because lawyers don’t really understand or like risk.

A great many of the services lawyers sell are based upon calculating, analyzing and modifying risks for their clients. But lawyers are notoriously risk-averse, and much of their advice comes down to “avoid this risk,” frustrating counsel to many clients who can’t avoid risk, and especially to business clients, who don’t want to avoid it but to manage it profitably.

Lawyers apply the same terrible risk-management skills to their own professional lives. Sure, the client might sue you, the partnership might reject you, the law might have changed, the money might be tight. You might get hit by a bus, too, but it’s not very likely, especially if you don’t walk into a busy street blindfolded. Good lawyers take steps to mitigate risks — attend CLEs, communicate frequently with clients, understand the partnership criteria, manage their money wisely.

But even good lawyers don’t give themselves enough credit for having done so and having taken steps to pay down the debt in their risk portfolios. There is always some risk that can’t be eliminated, but lawyers don’t want to hear that. We have a hard time distinguishing between the things we can control and the things we can’t; partly by nature, partly by training, lawyers subconsciously believe we should be in control of everything. That this is an impossible goal makes it no less compelling a directive gnawing away at our peace of mind.

Fear is a mental and emotional state, and so I think the solution lies in mental and emotional fitness. Lawyers could use better training in risk management and control, understanding not just what steps they need to take to reduce risk, but also accepting that it’s okay not to worry so much after having taken those steps. Lawyers are professional worriers, it’s true; but there are limits, and lawyers need to cut themselves some slack or face a life spent being afraid of most everything.

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