3 Essential Questions for Lawyers to Conquer Their Fears

By Bernard Knight
August 6, 2017

Lawyers are constantly bombarded by challenges that naturally create fear and anxiety.   Many lawyers don’t recognize these fears and fail effectively to deal with them.  This causes many lawyers to be unhappy and to provide less than outstanding service to their clients.  I identify many of these looming fears and present some practical tips for dealing with them.

The Legal Profession is Stressful

Is the sky falling?   Not really.   But, it may feel like it from time-to-time.

For sure, lawyers are in a profession that creates a lot of fear and anxiety.   These anxieties can negatively affect your relationships with clients, colleagues and supervisors.  Dealing with these fears and anxieties in a healthy way is essential if you are to be happy and productive in your work.

The consequences of these fears include drinking too much alcohol to relax, being snippy or yelling at people at work, eating too much and getting poor sleep.   You can deal with this stress in much more productive ways and be happier doing so.

An article in the ABA Journal discussed the fears faced by lawyers and described them as follows:

Yet, lawyers often are imprisoned by fear.  They’re fearful that their cases are out of control.  They’re fearful of looking foolish.  They’re fearful of appearing weak. K. Davis, Lawyers Shackled by Fear, Fear Not. ABA Journal, November 2015.

Let’s now identify some of the fears you may have been experiencing.   Many fears are unique to the work setting.

Fears Faced by Big Law Partners

A law firm lawyer’s greatest fear:  do I have an adequate pipeline of work to keep me and my associates busy?   This is a constant nagging concern of many partners at a law firm.

Marketing and client development activities are needed to keep an adequate pipeline.   We all need to find ways to add value.   Read my prior IPWatchdog article on creating a brand and for some helpful suggestions.

Yet, some economic forces are beyond your control.   For example, intellectual property district court litigation was down a little more than 20% in 2016.   There was an oversupply of lawyers to handle a smaller number of cases.   It’s tough in this environment to grow your business.

Law firm partners, like Government and corporate lawyers, are expected to be experts and there is little or no margin for error.   This also creates stress.   A lawyer doesn’t have the luxury to learn from her mistakes, if the client is paying a high fee per hour.

Clients understandably don’t want to pay high fees for lawyer training.   This is understandable.   As a result, mistakes and hours billed to learn are not tolerated in a law firm.   This creates anxiety and reduces the incentive to be creative and take risks.

Fears Faced by Corporate Counsel

Corporate counsel have the unique fear of being responsible for the corporate bottom line.  They must look at every decision and legal issue with its potential effect on the bottom line.

Lawyers are not trained to do this.   It creates a lot of anxiety because it requires the lawyer to predict the effect of a legal decision on the company’s business, which may be difficult to do.

Some companies make money from litigation and this creates its own challenges.   For example, non-practicing entities buy patents and then try to enforce them in court to earn huge damages.   This puts the lawyer at the center of the business.

In other businesses, the lawyers must make certain that agreements cover all future possibilities.   Lawyers are expected to have a crystal ball and this creates anxiety.   It’s difficult to plan for all future contingencies.

Corporate counsel also serve at the pleasure of the higher-up executives.   If a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) retires, the new CEO may want her own general counsel and so on.   The general counsel could be let go based not on poor performance but merely because the new CEO prefers another person that she is more familiar with.

Being responsible for the effect of a legal decision on future profits and not knowing when and if you’ll be let go creates anxiety.

Fears Faced by Government Lawyers

Government lawyers have the unique fear that they will make the wrong legal conclusion and it will be in the press.   Government lawyers in Washington call this the “Washington Post Test.”   In other words, the question asked is:  if I’m wrong, could this end up in the Washington Post?  It is particularly embarrassing for a Government lawyer because when the mistake hits the national press, everyone knows about it.

Anxieties also are created when an Administration changes and there is a new political general counsel appointed and confirmed.   The first-line managers must quickly prove themselves to the new general counsel or risk losing their jobs.

The Government lawyer is often placed in the position of balancing the desires of the boss on the one hand and trying to avoid a legal mistake on the other.   For example, Secretary Clinton could have asked for legal advice on her use of a personal server and email account.   The lawyers may not have found a criminal law that would be violated, although it may not have been the smartest thing to do.   Yet, her lawyers may have been trying to help her and did not assess the risks appropriately.

Any Government lawyer wants to make the boss happy.   I did; it’s natural and a part of your job.   Yet, a good lawyer will give sound advice and not be afraid to tell the boss “I wish that I could help you here, in my judgment the risks are too great; this will end up in the Washington Post.”

This is where knowing your core values and following them is essential.   Otherwise, you are like a ship without a rudder.   See my earlier IPWatchdog article on core values and how to develop and apply them.

This is a constant fear of Government lawyers.   It’s impossible to know what will blow up in the future.   It’s like walking in a field knowing that it contains land mines.

Any lawyer calls “balls and strikes” all day, but the ones made by a Government lawyer can hit the press and ruin a career.   When things blow up, Congress, the press and the Administration look for a scapegoat.   This creates anxiety.

Some Level of Fear Creates Great Lawyers

Now that we have identified the fears, let’s talk about the consequences.   The first thing to recognize is that fear and anxiety are normal.   Without some level of fear, it would be difficult to motivate ourselves to complete a task and to do it well.   So, fear and anxiety are not only normal but productive in the right context and in a manageable amount.

Problems arise when we don’t understand or consciously realize our fears, when we let our fears control us or when we try to subdue our anxieties through alcohol or drugs.   You can be happy in your anxieties.  However, you must be self-aware and not avoid them.  See my prior IPWatchdog article on the importance of emotional intelligence.

Reality checks are important to honestly assess whether your fear response exceeds the severity of the situation or task.   Oftentimes when we are anxious, we allow our fears to snowball and consume us.   It’s better to take a deep breath and step back from the situation to gain a more objective perspective.

Ask yourself:  on a scale of 1 to 10, how intense are my fears?

We can all have irrational fears (either the existence of the fear itself or a disproportionate amount of anxiety created by the event).   It would be a mistake to attempt to eliminate all anxiety or to ignore it.   To be happy in your work, you must recognize the anxiety for what it is and work with it.   I will discuss how you can do that below.

The 3 Questions to Help Conquer Your Fears

  1. Is the fear rationale?

When I was young, I used to lay in bed at night worrying about not having enough money in retirement.   This was an irrational fear created, in part, by my childhood.   My parents never saved any money and I saw myself ending up like them.

Believe it or not, I read a self-help book that had a chapter entitled something like “I’m Over Here and You’re Over There.”   Sounds silly, but realizing that I was not my parents really helped me to reduce and then stop my anxious thoughts.   They were not grounded in fact.

Look at your fears as if they are someone else’s and ask yourself whether those fears are justified under the circumstances.   Many times, you will conclude that they are not.

  1. Do I have all the information that I need?

Fears can be brought on by our feelings of helplessness or lack of control.   If we empower ourselves, the fear usually goes away.   Oftentimes, gaining more information is enough.

Developing a sense of mastery over the situation is the focus.   As noted by John Lande, “people who feel that they have more control over their situation are likely to feel less fear than those who feel that they have less control.”   John Lande, Escaping from Lawyers’ Prison of Fear, 82 UMKC L. Rev. 485, 493 (2014).

For example, if you lay in bed fearing that a deadline is approaching in a case, get up and research the due date.   Then, get some paper and a pen and put together an action plan for completing the task on time.   This will give you the sense of mastery over the situation that you need to subdue your anxieties.

In other words, obtaining more information will help you to gain control over the issue rather than merely worrying about it.

  1. Am I exercising and eating properly?

Proper exercise and nutrition are essential to feeling good and being relaxed.   Don’t eat junk food and sodas.   They don’t help.

Try to find time to get in some exercise and eat properly.   That will help!

Be Anxious and Be Happy

A certain amount of anxiety is normal and can propel you to reach your goals.   Anxiety is a normal part of life.   Learn to live with it and to recognize when it’s getting in the way of your happiness and productivity.   For more information on how to tame your anxieties, see my coaching website.

The Author

Bernard Knight

Bernard Knight is a career coach and counselor, and is a licensed professional mental health counselor in Washington, D.C. Bernie was a partner practicing complex patent litigation in the law firm of McDermott Will & Emery LLP from 2013-2017. Prior to joining McDermott, Bernie served as General Counsel for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) from 2010 to 2013. As General Counsel of the USPTO, he led the development and legal review of the regulations implementing the new Inter Partes review, post grant review, business method review and derivation proceedings, as well as the regulations changing the United States to a first-inventor-to-file system. Bernie previously served as Acting General Counsel of the U.S. Treasury at the height of the financial crisis. From 2001 to 2006, he was Deputy General Counsel for the USPTO. Bernie began his government career in 1991 at the Department of Justice, Tax Division, where he served for 10 years.

For more information or to contact Bernie, check out his Coaching Website.

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Discuss this

There are currently 2 Comments comments.

  1. Paul F. Morgan August 7, 2017 10:10 am

    Good article. Stress is very unhealthy. Here is some advice from others. Humble acceptance of the fact that no one knows everything also helps. One will inevitably forget or miss a controlling case or statute or rule, an ambiguity in a contract, etc., over a legal career. Work hard to avoid it, including keeping up with CLE materials instead of TV sports, but accept the inevitable. Having professional friends to ask for legal advice helps. Take time outs to meditate.
    Yes, as you note, the lucrative opportunities for handling patent litigation, especially on an unlimited billing hours fee basis, for large partnership incomes, are shrinking. A less luxurious personal life style and more savings is one good way to reduce that anxiety. Another is increased efforts for other income activities, such as projects for saving, instead of spending, clients money. Offering creative billing, maintenance fee and foreign filings reviews, license reviews for potential negotiations, or re-negotiations effectively using the potential for IPRs as a negotiation tool, etc., etc.

  2. Bernie Knight August 7, 2017 4:13 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Paul. I agree with you. Nobody is perfect; we all will make mistakes. The key is to learn from the mistake and move on. There’s no point in beating yourself up…we are all human.