Keeva on Life and Practice

Fighting The Fear Factor


Of the emotions that typically tinge the experience of practicing law, it seems to me that one stands alone in both its impact and the frequency with which it arises: fear.

It motivates and enervates, distorts and feeds on itself.

Think about it: There is certainly a lot to be afraid of in the legal profession. If you’re a trial lawyer, for example, there’s that gnawing fear that you’re insufficiently prepared to prevail in a given matter, that you’re simply not up to the job you’ve taken on, or that you haven’t anticipated all that you should have.

There’s the stomach-churning fear of going up against an opponent whose reputation as a force of nature precedes her.

There’s the fear of not being thought of as successful, of not making partner, of never being asked to second-chair an important case. There is also the fear of malpractice. And the endemic fear of failure.

In fact, in some cases it is accurate to describe a given law firm as a fear-based organization. And because fear tends to inhibit growth, such firms are in danger of becoming stuck and incapable of meeting the challenges that time and change will inevitably throw at them. It can be very difficult, however, to get a grip on this problem in an organization that does not take time for individual and group introspection. After all, to do so might impinge on the furious pace of billing hours.

But there are ways to deal with fear, once you realize how it’s affecting you both physically and emotionally. For one thing, you can devote some time and attention to recognizing it when you’re in its grip. Without doing so, you’re more than likely to find yourself at its mercy.

In his best-selling book, What Happy People Know, psychologist Dan Baker refers to “the biological circuitry of fear” as the biggest obstacle to our happiness.

His point is that the atavistic structures in our brains, in particular the brain stem (commonly known as the reptilian brain), still operate like they did tens of thousands of years ago, when very different dangers threatened our prehistoric forebears. We are, Baker writes, “hardwired for hard times.”

You see this when you’re walking down a trail and you step on a branch. You’re apt to flinch, instinctively reacting as if it were a snake. But when you get your wits back, you realize it was just a stick. The reptilian brain, with its simple fight-or-flight orientation to reality, had you fooled.

Unfortunately, for many lawyers the reptilian brain seems to be working close to full time. And why not? Is there any profession apart from the law in which other people—all of them highly intelligent, skillful, motivated and working in teams—are trying to make you fail? Can you imagine a physician in a similar position, having to worry that another doctor might try to kill one of his patients? Clearly, not all of what causes fear among lawyers is chimerical.

A Focus on You

The concept of emotional intelligence, known as EQ, has been with us for more than a decade, having been applied to many professions since author Daniel Goleman brought it into the popular culture.

In a new book on the topic, The Emotional Intelligence Quickbook, its authors, by way of defining the concept, have this to say: “Effective communication between the rational and emotional centers of the brain is [my emphasis] emotional intelligence.”

That means, among other things, learning to make peace with the reptile within.

Dallas trial lawyer John McShane, a student of both emotional intelligence and the culture of fear to which I’ve referred, sees an antidote to fear-based practice in EQ’s first and most important skill: self-awareness.

“The great thing is that once you realize you’re being driven by fear, and that it comes from this ancient part of you, you can let it go,” McShane says. “Without that awareness, you tend to feel captive.”

Jean Greaves, co author with Travis Bradberry of The Emotional Intelligence Quickbook, points out that being self-aware means that you’re able to know what is going on inside you—as it is happening.

“For example,” the authors write, “the emotionally intelligent lawyer feels her heart race when she spots a critical thread of facts in a complex case. She feels excited and knows that she’s on to something, but she also knows that when her heart races she sometimes jumps too quickly to conclusions.”

The alternative to developing this aspect of EQ—and yes, it can be developed—is getting lost in the fear that runs rampant in the legal profession. And guess what: Research over the last decade has conclusively demonstrated that emotional intelligence predicts success more than any other single factor—more than subject matter knowledge and job experience, according to Greaves.

I don’t mean to suggest that lawyers are the only professionals who would do well to turn an eye inward and grapple with issues of self awareness. Not at all. But given the stressors that are peculiar to law practice—which include cultural pressures to avoid emotions altogether—it’s important that we correct for certain unhealthy attitudes and habits.

To the extent that you can make your own internal emotional patterns as worthy of attention as you make your clients’ and opponents’, the role fear plays in your practice and your life will surely diminish.


Steven Keeva is the author of Transforming Practices: Finding Joy and Satisfaction in the Legal Life.


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