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8 tips for lawyers on how to build resilience

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James Gray Robinson

James Gray Robinson.

A popular keyword for psychologists and transformational leaders these days is “resilience.” The dictionary definition of resilience is the ability to recover. Synonyms are “perseverance,” “elasticity,” “toughness,” “flexibility” and “durability.”

In other words, resilience, as it pertains to lawyers, is the ability to endure setbacks, losses, mistakes and criticisms while working in a difficult profession. Chief Dan George said in the film The Outlaw Josey Wales, it is an “endeavor to persevere.”

I find in my coaching business that many lawyers jump into the deep end of the legal pool completely unprepared to be resilient. They have excelled at everything they have ever done. They haven’t had to suffer the outrageous “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” as Hamlet lamented.

This year, even the resilient are challenged with COVID-19. We have to deal with disrupted routines, lockdowns, stagnated court calendars and learning how to practice law all over again. It literally has been a year of teaching dogs new tricks. The question is whether we are flexible and resilient enough to take advantage of the new opportunities that are emerging.

The good news is resilience is a learned trait. It is not something you are born with or inherit. With some focus and practice, any lawyer can learn it. There are a number of steps lawyers can take to become resilient. Resilience is like a muscle; it takes nurturing and use to be healthy. Psychologists recommend a few steps for attaining resiliency. I have a few more.

1. Focus on teamwork

I like to say build a team or a posse. Elite professional athletes rely on coaches, trainers, counselors, friends and family to excel. Lawyers should do the same. Resilience is a team effort.

2. Remember your wellness

Resilience requires a strong foundation of balanced physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health. If any of these are imbalanced, your career may come crashing down in the face of the stress of a law practice. Think of wellness as balance. Get help for any area that may be suffering from a competent professional.

3. Find the fun

One of the first things to go while under stress and anxiety is the fun factor. Most lawyers would not characterize the practice of law as fun. It is rewarding, certainly, but with all the stress and anxiety, the fun part of it is often overlooked. When we laugh, the mind doesn’t care why we laugh. The benefits of laughter can offset all the stress and anxiety you may be experiencing.

4. Focus on the positive

You don’t have to believe everything you think. You can choose not to focus on your negative thoughts and focus on positive thoughts. Transformational leaders look to neurolinguistic programming to help people transform their lives by changing their thoughts.

5. Remember your purpose

The altruistic basis of law is to help people. Lawyers can be seduced by the financial rewards of helping people. Buddha taught that desire is the root of all suffering. When we focus on the good, the benefits will flow naturally. The more we serve, the more we will be rewarded.

6. Feed your soul

A steady diet of law practice can be pretty lean. Listening to the problems of your clients, day in and day out, and nothing else, can actually cause a traumatic response similar to post-traumatic stress disorder. Listen to music, watch an empowering movie, go outside or meditate. Do things that are fulfilling outside of practicing law.

7. Take a break

When we take breaks—5 to 10 minutes—we can increase our performance. Regular breaks can maintain a high level of focus, improve our attitude and increase our stamina. It is counterproductive to focus on one thing 24/7, day after day. We will crash and burn.

8. Look for the pearls

We are questioning whether we will ever find a new normal. Lawyers have to remember that we are intelligent, trainable and creative. No matter how stressed we might feel, our accomplishments are undeniable. A Buddhist proverb says to dig until you hit water, and dive until you find pearls. In other words, we can use the same talents and intelligence that got us here to develop resilience. We need to be the hero or heroine in our own story.

Resilience is critical, particularly if you are in a high-stress environment, such as litigation or criminal defense work. Any lawyer who deals with traumatic or high-stress situations must have strategies to balance these stressors, or we will burn out. The steps listed above will go a long way toward helping you become a resilient lawyer.

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.”

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