Editors Note: This article was originally published in GPSolo, May/June 2015 issue. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.”
All lawyers, whether we’ve been practicing for one month or many decades, will face setbacks, disappointments, and failures. Clients pay us to deliver certain desired results, yet the outcome of any given case is never completely up to us. We can pull all-nighters, research every angle, and write the most brilliant brief. The facts and the law may be on our side, but a judge may still rule against us.
As a young lawyer, I certainly had my share of challenges. Out of the gate, I failed the New York Bar. As someone who always excelled and was told “try hard, give it your best, and you’ll achieve success,” the failure was unacceptable. I also was fired from a job. I’ve lost jury trials, bench trials, and many motions.
Learning to overcome failures, learning to recognize obstacles, learning to moderate your emotions and bounce back from difficulties, these are the cornerstone of emotional intelligence and resiliency. The better you’re able to learn from your experience, let it go, and move on, the better you’ll be as a lawyer.
Here is what I’ve learned after 12 years of law practice. I have many battle scars, like a road map of what I’ve overcome, and I’m stronger and better for it.
Let’s start with a basic truth: The law is a very difficult profession. Few clients visit a law office to share happy news. Inevitably, most clients come with bad news, and it’s the lawyer’s job to clean up the mess. Lawyers also are given very few tools to manage these difficulties. To top it off, most lawyers got to where they are because they’re smart, dedicated, and good at what they do.
It’s simply not possible to never fail as a lawyer. Not if we’re applying ourselves and doing our job. The practice of law is just that: a lifelong practice. It’s not something we’ll ever perfect, or master. Of course, we will get better with practice, as with anything. But the constant challenge is also what keeps many lawyers in the game. We enjoy the intellectual challenge, and it satisfies our curiosity.
What are some ways successful lawyers can respond to setbacks? Here are ten suggestions.
1. Do Your Best and Let Go of the Outcome
This is perhaps the most frustrating part of being a lawyer: You can do your absolute best work, and the judge or jury may still rule against you. Remember, you have no control over your opposing counsel, her client, the witnesses, the judge, the jury, and on most days, not even your own client. The only thing you truly control is yourself. Work self-mastery and learn to let go of the rest.
2. Be Gentle with Yourself
When I stumbled or things didn’t go as expected, I would tell myself that I was no good. I’d tell myself that I was a lousy lawyer and a terrible human being. We’re our own worst critics. Notice these types of thoughts and recognize that they are just thoughts—not facts. If you don’t pass the bar exam, you failed an exam. It’s just an exam. That doesn’t make you a failure. If you get fired from a job, maybe it just wasn’t the right fit for you. It’s just a job. It doesn’t mean you are unemployable.
Imagine yourself sitting with a dear friend who is experiencing a difficulty like yours and ask yourself, “What would I say to her?” Chances are, you’d offer comforting words and listen. Give yourself the same compassion. A helpful exercise is to write a letter to yourself as if you were giving advice to your best friend.
3. Practice Self-Care
Getting enough sleep, exercise, and healthy food may sound like kindergarten stuff, but self-care is crucial for maintaining a healthy mind and body. It enhances your natural ability to bounce back from difficulties.
Do something kind for yourself. Go for a long walk. Connect with a friend. Take a long bath. Cook a healthy, delicious meal for yourself. Do something positive for yourself. Avoid destructive behavior such as resorting to alcohol, engaging in retail therapy, and other commonly misused pleasures.
4. Mind Your Thoughts
I remember earlier in my practice, it felt as though I constantly had a tape recorder running in my head. It only recorded the negative events, verifications that I’m a screw-up. The recorder would just replay a hearing I lost or the criticism from the partner. The toxic mentoring I received from the partner at the law firm also didn’t help.
The best way I’ve found to let go of these unproductive, unhelpful thoughts is through mindfulness and meditation practice. In meditation, you learn to observe your thoughts and recognize that you are not your thoughts. You also begin to recognize that your thoughts aren’t always true. Maybe there is a different interpretation. Perhaps you’re being overly critical. You practice getting better at gaining some perspective and distance from your thoughts.
This article previously appeared on Above the Law.