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ANXIOUS LAWYERING: WHAT IT IS & HOW TO FIX IT

Are you anxious while lawyering? Whether you’re a first-year associate or a senior attorney, anxious lawyering might be making your professional life much harder than needed. Unfortunately, it’s the default mode for many lawyers and a major contributing factor to unhappiness and burnout in the legal profession.
 
In this episode, we’ll look at what anxious lawyering looks like and the effects it can have on your practice. Then, I’ll share the 4 most common causes of anxious lawyering in Lawyer Moms, and – most importantly – how to fix it!
 

WHAT YOU’LL LEARN FROM THIS EPISODE

  • What anxious lawyering looks like.
  • Whom it affects.
  • The effects that this has on your professional life.
  • The 4 most common causes of anxious lawyering.
  • The remedies to eradicate it from your practice.

TRANSCRIPT

Welcome to episode 8 of the Happy Lawyer Mom Podcast! The podcast that takes lawyer moms from stressed and unhappy at work to having the work life and home life of your dreams so that you can be TRULY happy.

I’m your host, Charise Naifeh and I’m thrilled you’re here.

Hi there and welcome to episode 8! We’re talking today about what I call anxious lawyering. What is this and how do you know whether it’s affecting you and your practice?

This is an issue that I stumbled on years ago, in coaching lawyers on their careers. When I started out with the mission of helping people get happy at work, I didn’t expect to be spending much time at all coaching them on how they practiced law – I thought it was going to be all about getting them into their dream job – or the right role or the right work environment, which are the subjects of the next two episodes of this podcast.

But in the course of working with people on getting to a new job, many of my clients would come to our calls and tell me that they were not really able to make progress in the work we were doing of finding or create their dream job, because of something going on at their current job – some source of stress that made it hard for them to focus on the work that we were doing together – so I started coaching them on what was going on at work: we coach on all obstacles that are getting in way of the goal. So that meant we were looking at how they were approaching their work, their colleagues and supervisors, and their clients – and I started seeing a pattern in these clients – it was a way of practicing law that was riddled with fear and anxiety: what I call anxious lawyering. And the more people I coached, the more I realized how widespread this problem is.

As I started focusing on this issue and helping my clients actually solve this problem, one of two things happened: either they were able to deal with their current work in a more efficient manner so that work became less stressful and they could move forward with getting their dream job – or the second thing that sometimes happened was that once we resolved the anxious lawyering, work became much more enjoyable for them and because so much had changed for them at work, they were realizing that maybe they didn’t need to leave or find a new job: they were actually quite happy right where they were with this way of practicing.

So on my mission to help lawyer moms create happiness and balance in their work and home lives, it became apparent that solving the problem of anxious lawyering was a critical step, not just for lawyers who wanted to leave their current jobs, but for all lawyers who wanted a better way of practicing law. And this is particularly true for lawyers who facing some kind of major challenge or obstacle at work or in their personal lives that is adding fuel to fire of anxiety and this is spilling over to their practices. And being a lawyer mom falls squarely into that category: lawyering while also being a mom is a major challenge – and I’ve seen that lawyer moms benefit greatly when the issue of anxious lawyering is addressed and solved.

So in today’s episode we’re going to do 3 things:

First, we’re going to talk about what anxious lawyering looks like, how it can show up for you in your legal practice

Then, we’re going to talk about the effects of anxious lawyering, and

Finally, we’re going to talk about the four most common causes of anxious lawyering, and how to fix it.

So let’s begin by looking at how this problem shows up: anxious lawyering can show up pretty much at any point in your work day: it comes up when you’re asked to solve a legal question for which you don’t already know the answer; it can come up when you need to draft a brief or argue a motion; it can come up in team meetings, or meetings with your clients or with perspective clients.

You can recognize anxious lawyering by the voice of self-doubt that begins to run like a hamster on a wheel in your mind: what if I don’t know enough? What if I can’t find the right answer? What if I don’t have any business being here, and everyone realizes that? That’s the spin cycle of self-doubt which is a tell-tale sign of anxious lawyering.

Sometimes anxious lawyering is happening beneath your conscious awareness: so you might not be hearing that voice of self-doubt, but you find yourself procrastinating about getting your work done: if you’re having trouble getting going or focusing on your work, that could be a sign of anxious lawyering.

Or it might be that you find yourself with the opposite problem, which is that you feel compelled to go above and beyond what’s required to get the job done well: if you’ve come up with a solid answer, but you can’t hit send on the email or the filing because you’re afraid you might have missed something, that’s a clear sign of anxious lawyering.

If you find yourself having trouble disconnecting from work when you’re at home or with your family, that can be a sign of anxious lawyering.

We might expect to see anxious lawyering primarily in junior attorneys, but the truth is that this occurs at all levels of experience. I’ve found that anxious lawyering persists, despite qualifications, despite years of experience, despite many, many wins along the way. I’ve worked with lawyers who have 25 years of experience, with excellent reputations and a track record of proven results for their clients who continue to be plagued by anxious lawyering.

In some cases, it can actually become more crippling for more senior attorneys, because they hold themselves to a higher standard: they think they should know everything by now, given their years of experience, and they judge themselves more harshly.

They’ve been working so hard to create an excellent reputation, but they suffer from debilitating imposter syndrome, afraid that it will finally come out that they’re actually not as great as people previously believed, and they’re terrified to make a mis-step.

2. So that’s what anxious lawyering looks like: Now, let’s look at the effects of it.

Anxious lawyering tanks your productivity faster than anything else: assignments take longer than they should; procrastination happens; work product is rushed, and if it’s too rushed, can end up being sub-par; this can also create a ripple effect, where we start to get behind on other projects as well;

It can also create burnout, because unnecessarily grinding nonstop leaves you depleted. This is particularly true when you’re a lawyer mom, because it causes you to spend more time working during a period of your life you don’t have any time to spare and you need to be as efficient and effective as possible during your workday.

Anxious lawyering causes lawyers to work more than they need to – and to grind themselves into a fine dusty powder. Of course, no one wants that.

This is not just an isolated issue: anxious lawyering creates a cycle of anxiety that people can spend their whole careers struggling with: the more we fall behind, the more burned out we become, the less resourced and effective we are in our work, the more reasons we see for doubting ourselves and our abilities, which of course, sets us up for more anxiety.

Nobody wants to be caught up in this, and it’s not serving clients either, because anxious lawyering actually keeps you doing from your best work.

It can cause the part of your brain that you need most as a lawyer to go offline. I’m talking about the prefontal cortex, responsible for creativity, problem solving, and executive function, and the thinking skills that are required by the practice of law.

If you’re anxious enough to produce a stress response in your body and you go into survival mode, then that part of your brain goes offline – which, as you can imagine, is counterproductive.

Anxious lawyering also keeps you from going after new opportunities or getting visibility.

And it just takes the joy out of your work: it robs you of the inherent enjoyment and satisfaction of a good day’s work, which would otherwise be present but for the anxious lawyering.

It also affects the your time at home. When you’re worried about an issue at work and you bring that issue home with you, it can take the enjoyment out of the time with your family – and it can also keep you up at night, spinning or ruminating.

So clearly this is a problem that needs to be fixed. Now, let’s talk about where it comes from:

There are four common sources of anxious lawyering.

1. First of all, it can be a symptom of being in the wrong role: If what you’re doing isn’t what you actually want to be doing and your heart’s just not in it – this can create anxious lawyering – either because everything you do at work is a struggle, or because you know that you’re not actually performing at your best, or both.

If you have a role mismatch, then your very first step is to correct that role mismatch. That means that you get crystal clear about the skills that you want to be using, and you transition into a role where you’re using those skills. If you’re in a role that’s requiring you to develop skills that you really just don’t enjoy using, you’re not going to be thriving in your career.

Sometimes just getting someone into the right role is all it takes, and then they’re golden.

2. The second cause can be working in the wrong workplace environment.

Have you ever seen a fish out of water? Very anxious! That’s what’s it’s like to be in the wrong work environment!

Whether it’s your supervisor, your colleagues, your clients, or the culture of your workplace – when it’s not a good fit for your life and your values, that is going to create anxious lawyering.

If your work environment is the source of your anxiety, then this needs to be addressed, and there are often ways to make changes in the work environment that don’t require leaving your current workplace. We’ll be talking about that in greater detail in Episode 10.

But what if you’ve changed your role and your work environment, and you’re still plagued by anxious lawyering?

I used to see this years ago when I was at the beginning of my practice: we would get the client into the job she wanted, but she would take her anxious lawyering pattern with her into the new job, and it would continue to hold her back. So what gives?

3. The third common cause of anxious lawyering for lawyer moms in particular is what I call half-there-syndrome, meaning that we’re only half at work when we’re working, because the other half of our minds is preoccupied with the kids and what’s going on at home.

If you’re carrying a huge mental load from being responsible for the family and what’s happening at home, you may very well find that you have trouble turning that off at work – and so there’s a natural anxiety that arises from knowing that at some level, if you’re lawyering without being fully engaged, you’re more likely to make a mistake.

If that’s the source of anxious lawyering for you, then creating a high-functioning home needs to be priority number one: this means creating family equality, as we talked about in episodes 2 through 7, and setting up systems and processes so you’re your home runs itself and is under control.

This is a necessary step for a successful legal career as a parent, and if you don’t have this in place, you’re more likely to have anxious lawyering show up as a symptom of half-there syndrome.

There are also a lot of pre-requisites that need to be fulfilled so that your work week can go smoothly:

Meeting those pre-requisites is one of the things that we do inside my program, Happy Law Mom, because it’s a common area where I see lawyer moms getting stuck and overwhelmed.

This is particularly needed when people go back to work after their second baby, which is when things start to get challenging.

Not being fully engaged at work is costly in terms of opportunities, job security, and your bottom line; and it can also cause you to work more, and make you more prone to burnout.

This is not the way that working mom life has to be: when you have a solid foundation of a home life that’s running smoothly, it allows you to handle the inevitable challenges with greater ease and resilience.

After you eliminate the half-there syndrome, you’ll find that you’re more productive when it’s time to work, and more present when it’s time to be at home.

Ok, so that’s the third cause. But what about if you’re already in the right role, the right work environment, and you’ve got everything dialed in at home and yet you’re still suffering from anxious lawyering – what gives?

4. If that’s where you are, then it’s likely that for you, the anxious lawyering is coming from the fourth common cause, which is what I call perception-focused lawyering.

What do I mean by this? This is a way of practicing law where our lens of focus is driven primarily by concern with how our work product and work performance will be perceived. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this way of working. We all need some measure of this in our careers, and we certainly needed it to get through law school, but for many people, this way of operating is the direct cause of tremendous anxiety and stress at work. The part of our minds that are hyper focused on how we’ll perceived is the very same part of our minds that causes us to doubt our every move, play small, hold back, or overwork to make sure we don’t make a mistake. Operating with a perception-focused lens leads directly to an anxious way of working.

So the question becomes: what do you do about it? How do you fix this so that you can go from riddled with anxiety at work, holding back and doubting your every move, to becoming a professional who is thoroughly enjoying greater ease and calm in her practice while simultaneous becoming a respected expert in her field?

What you hear a lot in the personal growth and professional development space is the advice to use affirmations and change your thoughts. But in my experience with clients, you can say affirmations until your blue in the face and it’s still not going to quiet that nagging voice of self-doubt. It’s always going to be there at some level and trying to play tug-of-war with it simply doesn’t work.

But what does work is to bypass that voice of self-doubt altogether, and what does that faster than anything else is what I call Service-Centered LawyeringTM.

What does this mean?

Service-Centered LawyeringTM is a whole new way of working that allows you to shift your focus from how you’ll be perceived to the service that your work is accomplishing. It allows you to perform at your highest level during your workday and stop wasting time with the mental chatter of self-doubt that’s slowing you down and holding you back. When you make that switch, you’ll discover abilities you didn’t even know that you had, and you’ll be more focused, more effective, and more influential in whatever room you’re in, because you’re connecting your work to a larger purpose. It’s the fastest path to growth.

Service-Centered LawyeringTM is a hidden superpower for women in particular. When I teach my clients how to practice Service-Centered LawyeringTM, they find themselves tapping into a well of strength and energy and power – that they haven’t felt in years – or in some cases, ever. Connecting to this inner well acts like rocket fuel that allows them to start stretching beyond what they thought they were capable of before.

And it creates a positive cycle of reinforcement: the more they begin to see the impact of a service-centered approach, the more they trust them themselves – and the more the anxious lawyering pattern fades away.

This changes how they show up, and how people respond to them: it changes the assignments they get and the clients they get. They’re able to have more influence in their interactions with their teams and colleagues — and also with opposing counsel or judges or juries- which means better results for their clients.

Amy Pardieck is a psychologist and trial consultant and I saw her present some very interesting research on female lawyers in the courtroom.  She worked with 1600 focus group participants to evaluate the performance of different female lawyers, which could be categorized into three types: first there was the underconfident self-conscious type, who was trying to fit the mold of a courtroom litigator, but wasn’t pulling it off successfully. The women in this category were trying to fit into a role, but it didn’t appear authentic or confident to the jury.

Then the second type was a group of women who appeared extremely polished who was much more successful at fitting into the mold of the courtroom litigator, but was coming off as overly-aggressive.

And then there was a third type that Amy called “the mother of justice” type, which was characterized as down to earth, authentic, and deeply committed to the cause she’s representing. And this type essentially broke the mold of the courtroom litigator: no dark suits, no high heels, this type wasn’t really playing a role – she was fully centered on her mission.

So how did these three types perform in court?

In Amy’s research, the underconfident type won about 50% of cases, the aggressive type won 70% of cases, but the Mother of Justice type won 90% of cases.

When I was listening to Amy talk about her research, I realized that the underconfident type and the aggressive types were both taking a perception-focused approach in front of the jury: they were trying really hard to be perceived as fitting into a traditional mold of what a lawyer is supposed to do – the aggressive type is pulling it off with some success, and the underconfident type is pulling it off with less success.

But the Mother of Justice type isn’t doing this at all: she’s all about service and the mission, and that allows her to tap into her feminine leadership strengths and serve at the highest level – and the jury can feel that. There’s a credibility, a trust, that comes from someone who is embodying a service-centered approach. This doesn’t occur with both the underconfident and the aggressive types, who were more preoccupied about how they would come across — and it made a huge difference in the results.

If you’re taking a perception-focused approach to your practice and it’s exhausting you, or if you’d like to show up as a powerful attorney, like the mother of justice type, Service-Centered LawyeringTM is the answer. This is a skill that you can learn at any point in your legal career.

Many lawyers in my program have commented that they use this skill everyday now and it’s changed their work lives. It eases interactions with clients and team members.

For example: one lawyer in my program with 20+ years of experience was preparing to have a meeting with a family going through a number of difficult legal and personal issues, and she was really concerned about how this meeting would go. She spent her whole weekend worrying about it.

We had a call before her meeting and we went over this skill until she had nailed it – and she later the told me the meeting could not have gone better and that the service-centered approach was far more effective than anything she had tried in comparable situations in the past.

Another lawyer who’s in-house and has been practicing for 25 years who was having some trouble with getting overlooked at work in favor of younger colleagues. She learned this skill and later told me “I wish I had learned this earlier, but I’m glad I’ve learned it now because it’s changing my interactions at work and I’m finally getting the visibility and opportunities that I wanted.”

So these are just a few examples of how transformative this skill can be. It’s a skill that can be used in all kinds of different settings and with all kinds of situations.

Now, there are some common pitfalls to a service-centered approach that can trip people up. What are they?

Probably the most common for lawyer moms is trying to engage in Service-Centered LawyeringTM without healthy boundaries, and so you end up utterly depleted. Service-Centered LawyeringTM should never be done at your own expense! By that I mean, this is not about giving every last drop of yourself.

If you’re giving everything to everyone else and leave nothing for yourself, then something has gone wrong.

I see over and over again that when lawyer moms reach the point of burnout, it leads them to make career decisions that are ultimately not in their best interests and it leaves them with fewer good options.

So Service-Centered LawyeringTM has to be undertaken skillfully and with healthy boundaries.

Another common pitfall is that many lawyers don’t connect with or care about the mission that their work is currently serving. This is incredibly common. So many lawyers go to law school with ideas about how they’re going to help people, but they end up doing something completely different than they envisioned – often you’re just trying to get whatever job you can, so that you can pay back your student loans.

But when lawyers lose touch with the purpose or mission of their work, they can become very disillusioned. Their lives may look great on the outside, they might be checking all the boxes, but on the inside, it feels empty.

We might try to focus on the joy that our families bring us, but still find ourselves spending some of that family time dreading work on Mondays and continuing to feel anxiety and angst around our careers.

And because we probably know other lawyers who are going through the same thing, it’s easy to get stuck believing that this is just the way things are.

But this is not the way things have to be. When you find a purpose of your work that resonates with you, and develop a laser-focused attention on serving at the highest level, the anxiety fades, you results improve, and work becomes something you look forward to instead of dread.

I’m talking about the everyday satisfaction that comes with using the skills you enjoy using and for a purpose that keeps you engaged, motivated, and growing.

If you’re not currently experiencing this in your work, that’s fixable. I’ve developed a process that helps people identify and connect with the purpose they want their work to have, which is key to learning and practicing this service-centered approach.

Now, I also want to acknowledge the truth that even today, in 2022, female attorneys and attorneys of color still face many challenges in the workplace that contribute to anxious lawyering, and that would make any human anxious if they were to experience them. There are inequities and discrimination and bias that women and lawyers of color face that are very real. And all of that must be fixed.

I’ve seen a service-centered approach help individuals affected by those challenges cut through all of that and use their influence to make real change in their workplaces and go on to get exactly what they want, without getting derailed by those challenges.

So this approach is a useful tool that individuals can use while we’re all still collectively navigating and working to solve those larger systemic issues.

If you implement Service-Centered LawyeringTM in your career, it will change the way you approach your work and it will change the results you get at work.

If you need some help doing this, I teach this skill in my signature program, Happy Law Mom. I work with lawyers on this in my 1:1 program and in my group program. I teach you the skill and I teach you how to apply the skill, until it becomes second-nature to you, so that you can take it forward into any situation in your career, and step into the role of the powerful and effective attorney and tap into your feminine leadership strengths.

If you need help with this, you can book a free discovery call directly on my website, happylawmom.com and we’ll look at what’s going on for you in your specific situation.

If you have colleagues or mentees who you think can use some help with this, I give group workshops for law firms, Women’s Networks, and companies as well. For that, you can just send me an email at hello at happylawmom.com to find out more.

So that’s what I have for you today on anxious lawyering.

In the next episode, we’ll be talking about how to fix a role mismatch. You can’t be truly happy at work when the role you’re in isn’t a good match for the skills you love to use. So we’ll take a deep dive into solving that problem, especially once you’re a Lawyer Mom who has been practicing for a while and has family obligations, too. You don’t want miss that episode, so make sure you stay tuned for that.

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