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self-study / Competence Issues (Addressing Substance Abuse and Physical/Mental Impairment)

Apr. 12, 2019

Using resilience tools to maintain high-level performance

Steven Flannes Ph.D


Steven us a clinical psychologist and organizational consultant based in Oakland. For over 20 years, he has been affiliated with the Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP) of the State Bar of California. In this capacity, he works individually with attorneys on issues impacting their professional performance. He can be reached at: .


The demands of the legal profession are many and obvious, including variables such as cognitive complexity, stakeholder management (both internal and external), capacity limitations (working time, numbers of clients, etc.), working in extremely completive environments (both internal and external), long hours, and dynamic work flow directions and priorities. These challenging variables are inevitable, and, unfortunately, tools for addressing them have not often been presented in law school.

Over time, and especially during acute work periods, the attorney is challenged to address these complicating variables in ways such that his/her performance in the intellectual, interpersonal and emotional arenas of practice do not suffer.

Left unaddressed, these demanding and intrusive forces can hinder cognitive performance and decision-making, increase conflict behaviors, elicit anxiety and depression, and open the door for less-than-optimal coping methods, interpersonal and cognitive task shredding, job jumping and possibly substance abuse.

Employing resilience practices for performance maintenance

Each attorney, in essence, therefore needs to craft his/her own approach to staying "resilient," that is, being able to bounce back from difficulties. Resilience can be defined in different ways, but here is a definition offered by the U.S. State Department that nicely captures its core components:

"Resilience refers to the ability to successfully adapt to stressors, maintaining psychological well-being in the face of adversity. It's the ability to "bounce back" from difficult experiences. Resilience is not a trait that people either have or don't have. It involves behaviors, thoughts, and actions that can be learned and developed in everyone."

Developing a resilience practice as a strategy to maintain high levels of performance is very popular these days, and is utilized in organizations as diverse as the military, professional sports, private industry and professional practice firms. Additionally, resilience is researched and investigated by a variety of organizations; one such group is the Resilience Solutions Group at the University of Arizona (; presents many resources and papers).

What are tangible resilience practices that can be applied in legal practices?

There is no one list of practices that define a resilience practice. However, listed below are specific resilience practices that I have found useful for attorneys. (For over 20 years, I have consulted with attorneys who have been referred to me by the Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP) of the State Bar of California). Here are six resilience practices that attorneys have told me were very helpful in maintaining their levels of performance during trying periods:

1. Seek to apply a positive affect or attitude

In demanding work situations, it is a natural tendency to focus on "what's wrong," as this approach is congruent with proactive client problem-solving, cost savings and risk management, and client retention. Such a mindset also has a grounding in evolutionary biology, as our ancestors did well in their drive for daily survival by attending strongly to "what was wrong in the environment" (threatening animals, lack of food, questionable shelter, or hostile neighbors).

But, too strong a focus on "what's wrong" works against us. Such an excessive focus creates chronic fight-or-flight activation of the central nervous system, leading to the cluster of symptoms that constitute chronic stress (mood disorders, impaired concentration, interpersonal issues, and sleep disturbances).

So, what should be the proper mindset? I suggest one that acknowledges the "what's wrong" component while you also strongly embrace a "what's right with this situation- or in my life" cognitive stance.

Here's an example of this type of thinking:

"Yes, we just hit a roadblock at trial today, and it's going to take us lots of time and effort to consider our response. And, on the other hand, we got to see some of the weaknesses in our opponents' case, and those could shift the overall direction of the trial in our favor."

Bottom line: In your thinking, first acknowledge the negative, but then end your thought- or self-statement- with a thought that acknowledges "what is working well." Ending with a positive thought provides you with a platform that engenders a more positive mood, a greater sense of possibility, and makes it easier to access your creativity and problem-solving skills.

2. Identify your purpose or meaning in life

Your purpose in life may be related to your profession, or it may be different. Your purpose is that deep value or reason to exist that gets you out of bed in the morning, even when you have no distinct task that you "must do." For some people, such meaning comes from immersion in a religion. For others, it can be a transcendent belief in doing things for the welfare of others, or engagement with a societal cause that provides great personal meaning and satisfaction.

This importance in identifying our personalized sense of meaning was powerfully articulated by Vitkor Frankl in his book "Man's Search for Meaning." Frankl describes his observations about the functioning of fellow prisoners in a World War II concentration camp. Frankl observed that those prisoners who had identified, and then cultivated, an important personal meaning for their existence, even under those horrific circumstances, thrived the best.

In your world, you can use your search for personal meaning as a pursuit that nourishes your emotional and psychological lives in ways that can carry you through when you encounter very demanding or stressful situations. Thus, such meanings help you bounce back, or be resilient, in the face of adversity. What is your personal meaning?

3. Pursue an optimistic line of thinking and exploration

For many of us, the experience of optimism does not just happen. Indeed, many of us have a negativity bias, which pushes us towards seeing the glass half empty and believing that things will probably not change towards our benefit in the future.

However, research suggests that if we can consciously engage in a cognitive exploration that has an optimism tone- even if we are "not feeling it-"good things can happen. For me, this optimistic-toned cognitive exploration is best pursued in a conscious, tangible manner, where I may say to myself:

"OK, for the next five minutes, I'm going to write down every possible positive thing that may emerge from this dark situation."

I'll list big things, small things. Then, in the following five minutes, I'll try to visualize the path forward that could result in these possible positive outcomes.

And finally, I'll jot down two lists. One list consists of the activities that I believe I have some control over towards supporting the development of the positive outcomes (such as people I can call, actions I can take, engagement in my own exercise program, etc.).

And the second list will contain those actions over which I have no control (the behavior of others, financial limitations, arbitrary timelines crafted by others, etc.)

4. Engage in active coping and planning

Achievement-oriented professionals such as attorneys are used to identifying tasks, organizing resources, and then making things happen. The same processes can be applied to developing resilience. Thus, a lifestyle that focuses on active coping (talking to others about your concerns or desires, scheduling walks or exercise, practicing an avocational talent, and just "doing something" -- hats off to Nike) is better for these professionals than a style that is more passive in its coping approach (hoping things get better on their own, waiting for someone else to do something, or just thinking about the situation). Each person's list of active coping activities that can be planned is unique; what is on your list?

5. Engage in humor

Laugher, or a smile, is known to all of us as a great respite from stress and the debilitating effects of negative situations. Yes, as attorneys, you work on serious matters, each having substantive implications for the welfare of your clients.

But, still search for the humor in the situation. There is almost some of it present in any complex ongoing situation. Keep your eyes open. That momentary diversion from the engagement of the serious, crucial work of the case will not diminish your standing or your impact.

In fact, resilience research from many settings suggest that your embrace of humor will help lower the physical stress on your body, will help you have a bigger-picture perspective, will give you're a vehicle for experiencing support from colleagues, and, as I've found with my work with attorneys, it also seems to help open-up the attorney's problem solving skills and critical thinking competence.

6. Develop and seek social support

One of the most ironic yet comforting things I've discovered in my career as a psychologist is that often, my role is to help people remember things about life that they already know. And, the idea about the importance of getting support from others as a way to stay resilient is close to the top of that list of common wisdoms, present in most cultures.

Social support -- from peers, neighbors, family, friends -- helps us realize that we are not alone in our struggles or our search for solutions. In my experience, attorneys often tend to isolate during stressful periods, possibly thinking reaching out to others will be seen as a sign of weakness, or a speed bump on the road to career advancement.

I personally think that attorneys can have a difficult time reaching out for help because, in part, they have a history or over-relying on their intellect to solve problems. For example, through high school and college, and possibly even law school, they were one of the brightest people in their world, and their intellect was often sufficient to help them solve problems and stay at the top of their game.

However, when they enter practice, they find a number of variables combining to make the intellect not the sole tool to use in addressing demanding settings. Thus, the attorney finds task complexity and shifting goals, problematic actors in their professional life (both peers and opponents), fluid and demanding multitasking, and a chronic competitive environment.

Not all of the nasty variables or problems can be solved via the intellect. Social, or emotional resources such as support from others, are required. The wise attorney thus combines the head and the heart and develops social support. These connections provide key ingredients for the resilient attorney. You don't need a large number of such connections; a few people who offer substantive, unconditional support will help greatly. Where are you in the process of creating your social support?

How can you make changes in your behavior?

If you desire to develop a resilience practice for yourself, first consider the following thoughts on optimal approaches to changing or modifying one's behavior.

1. Focus on implementing the new behavior, and not on the outcome of the behavior.

Legal practice obviously is outcome-oriented. But an outcome-oriented approach to changing your behavior does not often work, because focusing too much on the outcome of your new behavior can result in anticipatory anxiety, which we all usually handle by stepping back and not trying the desired new behavior.

So, if your desired new behavior towards creating a more resilient personality is to "identify and implement more focus on your personal meaning in life," try the following:

• Sit silently by yourself and jot down four or five possible "meaning in life" examples that come to mind.

• Don't concern yourself with finding THE "right" one

• Do some exploration/study/reading on each of the five

• See if some get eliminated as your do this search

• With the remainders, ask some friends what they might think would fit for you given their knowledge of you

• Pick one, and devote some time to "pursuing" it (and you get complete permission to define what that means for you

• If you hit on one that really seems to be accurate for you, that's great, and look for ways to include its pursuit somewhere in your life.

• Repeat as necessary

2. Give yourself the gift of non-judgmental self-acceptance

In general, and especially when trying something new, please be gentle with yourself. Developing a more active resilience plan for your life is not a task that can be measure in terms of success or failure, or right or wrong. Allow yourself to try new things, experiment, and to enjoy the journey. Playfulness is a great companion.


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