Believe no one,
Uriah Heep, Lionel Hutz, Atticus Finch – what do they have in common?
Four syllables each and, in ascending order of reliability, fictional lawyers.
Although we have learned recently that Finch was a casual racist …
Lawyers are a disparate group.
We legislate for and advise most of humanity.
Justice is universal.
Lawyers come from every background imaginable and practice in all jurisdictions.
Millions of laws regulate innumerable human activities.
Lawyers are reviled and revered, in debateable proportion.
Clearly there are aspects of our role that engender respect and trust.
We are trained to know the rules, how they work, and how they can be interpreted in a client’s favour.
Certain characteristics are necessary to enable us to do this effectively.
Recognising that certain aspects of legal practice can be more or less competitive or collaborative, contentious or non-contentious, we have certain traits that help us to do our jobs well.
A draftsman who is conscientious, perfectionist, thorough, and attends to detail will have an advantage over another who is not.
A partner in a law firm who is tough, resilient, independent, autonomous and self-reliant will have the edge over rivals.
A fee-earner who is competitive, driven, ambitious, and who has high expectations of herself is more likely to achieve than one who is not.
An advocate who is persuasive, sceptical, questioning, good in debate and who has strong personal charisma is likely to win more often than others.
Counsel who is good on paper will benefit from being analytical, intellectual and cautious, able to see both sides of the argument and give balanced advice.
However, this is just one side of the coin.
On the other, where these characteristics become closely woven into a lawyer’s sense of identity, personal satisfaction, self-esteem, and relationships they can play out in a less functional manner.
Aspects that are constructive in a courtroom can be destructive if played out in a family setting.
What is helpful becomes self-defeating.
Functional can become dysfunctional.
If the lawyer is unable to come out of role, or if there is a general over-identification with their professional self, one who is intellectual and analytical in professional life might be emotionally detached at home.
Expectations of others in the family can be driven by achievement, and successful completion of tasks, and winning over losing, rather than emotional attachment.
One’s worth can be measured in terms of achieving, rather than in relating.
Lawrence Krieger, Clinical Professor of Law at Florida State University College of Law, puts it like this:
“Thinking ‘like a lawyer’ is fundamentally negative; it is critical, pessimistic, and depersonalizing. It is a damaging paradigm in law schools because it is usually conveyed, and understood, as a new and superior way of thinking, rather than an important but strictly limited legal tool” (my emphasis) .
In other words, we have to think like lawyers to ‘do law’, but if we carry this too far, thinking like a lawyer may not help us to ‘do life’.
High expectations of oneself and being looked up to by clients and fellow professionals can develop into an unhealthy narcissism.
An overly tough and resilient persona can be accompanied by independent self-reliance and reluctance to seek help from others when it is needed at appropriate times.
A recent study demonstrated that people with perfectionist concerns experience high levels of work-related burnout .
If I know best, I’m unlikely to seek or welcome feedback on performance.
Feedback involves criticism, however constructive, and this can feed self-criticism. We will look at this more in a while …
 Krieger, L. S. (2002) Institutional Denial About the Dark Side of Law School, and Fresh Empirical Guidance for Constructively Breaking the Silence, Journal of Legal Education, 52, 112-129.
 Hill, A. P. & Curran, T. (in press) Multidimensional Perfectionism and Burnout: A Meta-Analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, Accepted for publication: 23/06/2015.
(This is an edited excerpt from my book A Lawyer’s Guide to Wellbeing and Managing Stress published by ARK Group in 2015.)