Your Voice

10 tips for lawyers to establish self-confidence and client compassion

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James Gray Robinson

James Gray Robinson.

I talk to a lot of attorneys who are suffering from stress and anxiety. They feel victimized, lost or unappreciated. Most of their lives are spent trying to impress their superiors or their clients with their talent and knowledge. They are depressed because they have often been told that the secrets to success don’t work.

The first thing I ask my clients is: “What is the problem?” The initial answer predictably involves various conflicts. Lawyers live in a sea of conflict, and unless we know what to do, it infects every aspect of our lives.

One of the fundamental conflicts is the assumption that money will make sacrifices worthwhile. After all, we are told in law school that the law is a jealous mistress. Young attorneys tell themselves that the long hours and sacrifice is expected. Even more problematic is the idea that making big money justifies the sacrifice of work-life balance, family and time.

An initial problem for most attorneys is establishing a professional identify and reputation—how we attract clients and make money. It doesn’t make sense to think that working 18 hour per day in a library will establish the charismatic magnetism to attract the big clients. The promises of social media marketing can be hit or miss.

I am a baby boomer, so most of what I know about establishing a professional identity in the legal world was limited to networking. Advertising was frowned upon and strictly regulated. When I started practicing law in 1978, the competition was low and the demand was high. There were fewer than 2,000 attorneys practicing in North Carolina, servicing millions of potential clients. Now, it seems that there are attorneys everywhere competing for clients. Today, there are over 27,000 attorneys practicing law in that state.

Here are some tips to establish yourself as a competent and compassionate lawyer to potential clients.

1. Establish who you want to represent

This is the first step of creating an identity. Most “newbies” will work on whatever case their boss needs. Is that what you want? The earlier you make this decision, the easier you’ll be able to accomplish this focus in your career. What are you interested in? Protecting malpractice or doctors? Pollution or green energy? Insurance defense or personal injury work? There are hundreds of practice areas to choose from. Make one yours.

2. Have a plan

A lot of attorneys I work with don’t have a plan. They became a lawyer for myriad reasons, but they had no specific goals. More importantly, they had no backup plan for what happens if they don’t accomplish their goals. Rather than sitting down with a professional to assess where they are and how to readjust, they simply get stressed or depressed. Being a lawyer is a vocation and is what you do; it does not define who you are. Having a plan gives you a road map to how to get what you want.

3. Be honest with yourself

I became a lawyer to please my parents. That is not a good reason to become a lawyer. Do you relish the constant give-and-take, the uncertainly of practicing law? Did you become a lawyer simply for the promise of making money or for the prestige? These are known as negative or avoidance motivations, in the sense that you are trying to avoid poverty, rejection or lack of control. This creates stress and depression. Mental health professionals recommend that we have positive motivations to cultivate resilience. Motivations, such as a desire to help others and other positive goals, help avoid stress and depression.

4. Establish your priorities

I often ask my attorneys to make a list of their priorities. The stress that they experience always involves a conflict between what they want to do and what they think they must do. Listing our priorities and comparing them to how we spend our time helps us see where the conflicts are. For example, if your highest priority is family, but you spend most of your time at work, you have to adjust how much time you spend at work. An alternative is to spend regular time with your family, even if it is less than the time at work.

5. Find your voice

What is it that you want to tell your potential clients? Have a conversation with your best friend about what you want to tell your clients, and write it down (don’t reveal any confidential matters). Whatever you would tell your friend is what you have to tell your clients. Speak with confidence and kindness. This is the hallmark of a successful lawyer.

6. Build and maintain a rapport

“Rapport” is the most important word in any lawyer’s world. It should be printed in 100-size font and posted everywhere in your life: It should be on the receptionist’s desk, in your conference rooms, in every advertisement and in every room in your house. This is how we connect with everyone in our life. Do we have compassion, connection, trust? You must have rapport.

7. Find your platform

Be an expert. Write articles about what excites you. Talk about your talents and knowledge. Research everything about your interest area. Establish yourself on the internet. I have been writing hundreds of articles about what is important to me, and I have been recognized as an expert. Most lawyers specialize in something. Even if you have a general practice, find the area in which you really excel and focus on that.

8. Don’t quit

It is ironic how many stressed lawyers forget that they can do the job. If a group of your peers approved you to be a lawyer, then you are worthy. If the stress and anxiety are adversely affecting your life, seek help to deal with them.

9. How to feel in control

Do you feel in control? Many of my clients complain that they do the best they can, and it isn’t good enough. Ironically, they are in control, and yet they feel powerless. I show them that they are in control, and they can change their reality. A helpful lesson is that there are no mistakes, only learning opportunities. Another is to understand that doing the best you can is good enough.

10. Be your best

If you are a lawyer, you are competitive. It comes with the territory. It doesn’t matter whether you are the best or not; it only matters whether you are happy and fulfilled. When you are happy being a lawyer, you are successful. The trick is to be confident. Confidence is the consequence of the decision that you do know what you are doing, even if you don’t always get the results your client wants. Sadly, the legal profession cannot guarantee results. The only requirement is that you must be curious. Instead of wallowing in limiting beliefs and negative self-talk, be curious about what is happening in your life. Confidence comes with curiosity.

I have found that many lawyers burn out because they have never understood exactly who they are professionally and find the power in that identity. Anyone who has passed the bar exam has the potential to have a happy, successful professional life if they learn how.

James Gray Robinson was a third-generation trial attorney specializing in family law for 27 years in his native North Carolina. Burned out and emotionally spent practicing law, he quit in 2004 and spent the next 16 years doing extensive research and innovative training to help others facing burnout and personal crises to heal. In 2017, at age 64, using the tools and strategies he learned, Robinson passed the Oregon bar exam and is again a licensed attorney. Learn more about his work at or email him at [email protected]. is accepting queries for original, thoughtful, nonpromotional articles and commentary by unpaid contributors to run in the Your Voice section. Details and submission guidelines are posted at “Your Submissions, Your Voice.”

This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.

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