Law People

Law People

Better Law Practice Through Better People Management

Dumbing Down the Law?

Posted in Innovation, Law Departments, Law Education, Leadership, Management, Productivity, Profitability, Recruitment, Retention, Risk Management, Uncategorized

Here we are into another application-to-law-school season and there are hopes that the numbers are starting to look up. After all, the news over the last few years–the lower number of applicants to law school (declining over 40% to the lowest level in 15 years), the low enrollment rate (2014’s was the lowest since 1987), the lower graduation rate (also down), and the lower rate of those passing the bar (the lowest in some states in 27 years), all culminating in the employment rate for law grads falling in 2014 for the sixth consecutive year–are unsettling statistics for an industry premised on providing over-the-top excellence from the best of the best.

And matters may actually get worse. In an effort to maintain enrollment, Pace Law School in New York is matching the tuition at state schools, and the State University of New York-Buffalo Law School and the University of Iowa College of Law announced they would not require the LSAT  for applications from top students from their undergraduate schools (although the ABA caps the percentage of LSAT-less matriculants at schools at 10 percent of a first-year class.). Another tactic, favored by the majority of law schools, is simply to lower admissions standards. “Nine in 10 law schools have allowed LSAT scores of students in the bottom quartile to drop–meaning those whose scores are already the lowest of the class are getting even worse,” according to a report by the nonprofit that creates part of the Bar Exam.

Daniel Rodriguez, dean of Northwestern University School of Law, which has cut its first-year class size by 19 percent since 2011, says he pushed for the school to slim its classes partly because, with fewer jobs available, he thought it was “irresponsible” to keep taking in so many new students.

That’s the way the ABA Rules look. Standard 501 of the ABA Standards and Rules of Procedure for Approval of Law Schools 2015-2016 states that “a school shall not admit an applicant who does not appear capable of satisfactorily completing its program of legal education and being admitted to the bar.”   

The ABA Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar is responsible for enforcing this standard. Unfortunately, for the past five years while law school admissions standards have plummeted, the Council has shown no willingness to use this standard to protect unqualified applicants from being admitted to law school when they have poor prospects of actually becoming a lawyer.

According to Council Chair Justice Rebecca White Berch, “the Council is working on revising the Standards to make them clearer and more easily enforceable.”

In the meantime, the legal field is squarely on the horns of an existential dilemma: do the increasingly lower GPAs, LSAT scores, number of applicants, percentage of applicants admitted, and percentage of graduates passing the bar all undermine the cream-of-the-crop position–as in, we only hire the cream of the crop, which is what makes us so smart/effective/successful?

What exactly is the pitch now of legal employers who are in fact hiring only the cream of a vastly dumbed-down crop, if you will? Now are we of the opinion that it only takes a much less smart person than we previously extolled to be a great lawyer?  That technology is supplementing our expertise to such an extent that the human factor is less significant?  That the legal robot coming online will make up for any deficits in our skills?  That it all comes down to marketing in any event?

Add the impact on the profession of these less competitive newcomers to the loss the industry is already suffering of so many lawyers who had high LSATs, GPAs  and law school standings in years past–i.e., women, who are leaving the profession in droves and not looking back, along with a sizable number of male lawyers, as well.

Recently a senior partner at a BigLaw firm assured me that they had no concerns–the Ivys were still churning out enough high performers to stock the top-of-the-line firms. And maybe he’s confident for good reason. Many would argue that the most elite law schools remain just as competitive or even more competitive.

But the drop in applications is evident there as well, making a less-well-pedigreed student body than in years past, regardless of how competitive it is once they are in law school. Since 2011, the number of applicants to law schools ranked in the top 20 by U.S. News has dropped by a median 18%: Yale Law School’s applications dipped 13%, Harvard Law School’s 18%. Columbia, Cornell, Berkeley, NYU, Virginia, UCLA, and USC all saw their applications drop by more than 20%.

“The most urgent challenge facing the top schools is that applications from students with the highest test scores have declined. In 2010, 12,177 people with the highest scores on the LSAT (165 and above, the highest possible score being 180) applied to law school. By 2015, only 6,667 people with those scores applied,” or roughly half.

A link has never been established between GPAs, LSATs, and law school standing nor between any of those factors and success in legal practice. Will we now finally start valuing, admitting and hiring for emotional intelligence, the one well-documented advantage that even someone with lower traditional testing credentials might bring to the legal game?

We can either continue to contend that we are the-smartest-of-the-brood or we can take the position that we are still good lawyers, even though our pedigree stats aren’t as impressive, for the right reasons.

Or, hey, with lower standards, maybe this is a good time to apply to law school.


Muir to Speak to the Ontario Bar Association

Posted in Announcements, Communication, Emotional Intelligence

Muir will be anchoring the discussion on “Building Superior Communication Skills” for the Ontario Bar Association’s professional development program on “New Competencies for Lawyers” on March 4, 2016 in Toronto. She is pleased to be joined for that discussion by David Caruso, of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and one of the developers of the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT), who will also be headlining the day with a discussion of emotional intelligence.

Join us! You can register here.

Lawyers in Conflict

Posted in Client Service, Coaching, Communication, Compensation, Conflict, Culture, Decision-Making, Emotional Intelligence, Law Education, Leadership, Management, Mentoring, Productivity, Professional Development, Profitability, Retention, Risk Management, Teamwork, Uncategorized, Work Satisfaction

Having just finished an interesting assignment helping a firm resolve conflict among its ranks, I am freshly reminded of what it is that puts lawyers into conflict and then keeps them there.  So please indulge me in this seat-of-the-pants riff (for the record, none of which, of course, applies to any of my clients).

Lawyers are on average highly conflict-averse.  Yes, you read that right.  Lawyers, who specialize in waging and also resolving conflicts, are nonetheless usually personally and deeply conflict-averse. Yet resolving conflict among lawyers is one of the top concerns of law firm managers (and the rank and file) in many firms nationwide.

What does that mean about lawyers, and even how is that possible?

You could make the gladiator point–lawyers are hired to be the ones who go into battle, whether on the corporate playing fields or in the litigation stadiums. So we probably have aggressive qualities in spades that must leak out into our interactions with each other, as well, right?

There’s some truth to that. But why then are we “conflict-averse,” when that should arguably be our preferred arena?

There’s the “unempowered” theory. We have data that many of the people who put on the mantle of law do so because they do not feel personally powerful.  This trait often manifests as aggressive competitiveness to show the world otherwise.  So we likely have some underlying underdog-type mentality to start with, with a layer of “I’ll show you” on top.

Nearly all of those same law students start law with the stated ambition of wanting to help those who are underdogs. Interesting coincidence, display of empathy or another empowerment ploy?

In any event, most of those young lawyers are thwarted in that goal because it becomes apparent that the “best” lawyers are making a lot of money working for corporate clients, not underdogs, and these same law students are, as we said, competitively trying to prove their worth. So they end up swallowing their do-good ambition and representing a powerful Fortune 500 company in the arena. This “disillusionment” factor is sometimes cited in trying to account for the profound distress levels of law students and lawyers and also the very high job dissatisfaction that a large portion of practicing lawyers register.

Then there’s the rational/emotional divide. Law schools require applicants to jump over some high hurdles in order to matriculate, but as the multi-year, extensive study by University of California Berkeley professors Schultz and Zedeck determined, the attributes applicants are tested for, and which are then reinforced during law school, are “academic skills,” it being safe to say that “the emotional side of most law students is underdeveloped.”

Some of lawyers’ attributes that we have good data on include low resilience, low sociability, a high incidence of introversion, high skepticism, high urgency and high pessimism, as well as low emotional intelligence, in nearly every case to a startling degree when compared to other professions and the population at large. These attributes mean we lawyers have trouble recovering from set backs, initiating and sustaining relationships (which in turn makes it harder to recover from setbacks), trusting others (which in turn makes it difficult for others to trust us), and being patient, all combined with little ability to recognize or manage the emotional fallout that we and the others around us are awash in.

Why care? Because, as the UC Berkeley professors and others have pointed out, this profile puts lawyers at risk not only for poor lawyering–think weak rainmaking and client service–but also for repeated conflict with colleagues, friends and family, which is then magnified by the additional distress of not having effective coping skills to draw on when the going, as it always does, particularly in law, gets really tough.

Being defensive–the art of fighting back instead of taking to heart any comments that might by some stretch of the imagination be deemed critical–is a common approach by lawyers to interpersonal interactions. The specter of criticism just touches too many nerves. Are you trying to disempower me even further than I already am? Hasn’t my aggressiveness worked to make me look imposing enough to keep you at bay? If I allow myself to entertain the possibility that I have weaknesses, how will I ever recover my confidence? Isn’t this just an exercise in stunting my chances at the career I want? What does that smile on your face mean–that you enjoy beating me up?

So, as in other sports, the best defense is a good offense. And often that offense is against another lawyer, who is, as we’ve just said, defensive, and so on down the line. “Feedback” has not resulted in any improved behavior and everyone is fuming.

So how lawyers get into personal conflict in the first place shouldn’t be such an enigma.

Two other approaches to conflict in the office that lawyers expertly use are suppression and rumination. Their objectives at the outset are opposite–the suppressor wishes to leave behind with alacrity any uncomfortable discussion or feeling, while the ruminator delves deeply into that uncomfortable space again and again, marinating in its painfulness. The suppressor prides her/himself on leaving the past behind (hastily) and moving forward (unfortunately with the monkey firmly planted on his/her back), while the ruminator is dutifully plumbing this terrible situation, over and over again, with particular attention to how s/he was unfairly treated.  These approaches have the twin disadvantages of disabling the practitioner from doing anything about the conflict and therefore also allowing the stakes to mount.

The intransigence of these conflicts make even more sense when you add that when someone gets down to actually doing something about the conflicts they are embroiled in, we lawyers have only one approach other than out-and-out combat–unlike corporate and government executives, who have demonstrated that they have three other good options.

Unskilled in the nuances of emotions, relationships, and personal empowerment, lawyers choose avoidance as their preferred course of action.  Or inaction, I guess.  If we walk past the conflict or hide out in the library during the conflict or talk about anything but the conflict, maybe it will go away, we tell ourselves–resolve itself, become irrelevant, peter out. Those mystifying angry faces or attempts to belittle or win are best ignored, because the only alternative we are schooled in is the scorched-earth firestorm. And, in fact, we don’t really want to go there, particularly when the people or principles involved are important to us or others.  While we might not truly understand why, we fear that the chances of recovering from that battle, whether the win is our’s or someone else’s, is slim.

So the conflict not only remains, but often grows, eventually metastasizing into what not only eats at the law firm, but what eventually eats it up. The “emotional labor” it takes to suppress, ruminate and defend all those emotions/threats swirling around us reduces our cognitive abilities dramatically–math abilities plunge, our language and logic decline, our ability to analyze and solve problems suffers. Over time, the wear and tear intellectually, emotionally and physically takes an enormous toll.

Eventually an exhausted partner or a once-promising but now under-performing senior associate or a prize client puzzled (or insulted) by inattentiveness picks up their respective marbles and goes away.  Or at least threatens to.

That’s when I usually get the call. It’s a fight over compensation, I’m invariably told.

But it usually isn’t.

Mamas, Don’t Let Your Daughters Grow Up to be Lawyers: A Preview

Posted in Client Service, Compensation, Conflict, Culture, Diversity, Emotional Intelligence, Innovation, Law Departments, Law Education, Leadership, Management, Professional Development, Profitability, Recruitment, Retention, Risk Management, Uncategorized, Work Satisfaction, Work/Life Balance

In anticipation of a white paper on the persistent question of why there isn’t greater gender diversity in the practice of law, here’s a look at a few of the salient points:

  • Women have comprised roughly half of law graduates for a number of decades, and have been consistently over-represented at the top of their classes.
  • While many firms have hired women at comparable rates as men for years, women have left the legal field entirely–not just their current job–at over twice the rate of male lawyers, with their flight increasing at each level of seniority.
  • Thus, the diminished pipeline and arguably other factors have not produced the numbers of women in senior partner and leadership roles that their representation and performance in law schools over the last decades would seem to promise. At the current rate of making female BigLaw equity partners, in fact, it would take another 165 years for women to catch up.
  • Where women have stayed in law, their likelihood of promotion and their compensation at every level is significantly lower than their male counterparts’.

Why are we facing this dilemma?

It’s easy to point to imbedded unconscious (sometimes conscious) bias in a largely white, male profession as the culprit. Easy, but from my perspective, not at all sufficient. The leadership in most firms I work with are genuinely baffled by why they are not able to hold onto some of their brightest attorneys, on whom they have spent significant time and money to hire, employ and train.

Law firms have tried a number of approaches to entice and keep women lawyers.  Some make a larger financial investment in women’s networks and affinity groups than employers in many other industries do.  Other have adopted flex-time programs of various stripes, and some even have attempted to eliminate wage disparity by creating lockstep compensation at certain levels.

On the women’s side, both from clients and friends, I hear another aspect of the situation: they value efficiency, flexibility, respect for their personal commitments, and harmony in the workplace.  They are not finding that in our legal organizations.  In a survey of more than 17,000 law firm associates, women rated their firms’ culture, their job satisfaction and their compensation (among others) much lower than their male counterparts did. One study shows women graduating from law school with high confidence and optimism, yet very few feeling that way a few years later. An attorney at a big firm wrote after her first year on the job: “the only way to be successful is to go into the role expecting to be treated poorly.”

According to Harvard research, women want high-paying careers but also expect work and family balance at the same time. A J.D. provides a significantly greater life-time earnings premium for women over other alternatives–even more than men enjoy.  But, as More‘s list of top ten careers for women “who want a life” makes clear, law (not surprisingly) isn’t one of them. Interestingly enough, Millennials of both genders share many of the same objectives as women.  So even if women continue to disappear from the legal workforce, the tension around these issues is not going to abate for a long time.

Admittedly, law is not a happy place for anyone these days.  In a 2012 survey of 65,000 employees, male and female respondents declared “associate attorney” the unhappiest job in America.  So women who are voting with their feet may well be sizing up the situation quite adroitly, leaving their colleagues to suffer well-documented out-sized levels of stress, heart disease, depression, substance abuse, divorce and mental illness.

Add that women are still shouldering more domestic and child-rearing tasks than most men, and a typically challenging law firm job becomes even more formidable.  Women lawyers are asking how to take the time to give birth and bond with their children without losing out on the increasingly fewer partnership slots to colleagues who don’t take maternity leave or vacations away from clients. One lawyer mom wrote in a clearly defeated departure memo to her employer, “I have not been able to simultaneously meet the demands of career and family, so have chosen to leave private practice, and the practice of law…”

The realities of modern-day legal practice make fashioning a workable solution for women difficult.  In a cutthroat environment where clients are leaving law firms at the drop of the hat, responsiveness is one of the things seen as keeping clients loyal without firms having to resort to bargain basement pricing.  So lawyers must be available 24/7/365—often viewed as not consistent with having a life.

Yet most of the firm leaders I work with are trying hard to treat their lawyers fairly. They just want a rule, they say.  A rule that will achieve more diversity and that can be applied to everyone equally. They will willingly enforce it. What’s the rule, they ask?

Ahh.  And there is at least part of the rub.

The long answer is that most lawyers fit within a narrow personality profile—which includes introversion, low empathy, high tolerance of disharmony, low appetite for risk, low resilience, high skepticism, low sociability, limited conflict resolution skills and high pessimism. Some of these attributes assist them in aspects of their careers, but they make effective innovation around talent management particularly challenging. These personalities are most comfortable with fairness that broaches no exceptions, with bright clear lines that are easily explained and demonstrated to have been adhered to, and with emotional detachment. After all, this is the profession of justice.

Women lawyers are most likely to differ from male lawyers in a few crucial personality attributes.  Even if they are just as smart or smarter, just as responsible and just as hard working, or more so, just as tough or tougher, the odds are high that the women are significantly more empathic, better at reading emotional cues and more driven to achieve harmony in the workplace. Yes, it matters to them that others are happy and that they are viewed as nice. Particularly given the alternatives.

This profile results in a different vision of fairness– one that takes into consideration individual circumstances and goals and crafts custom treatments that try to address as many of the parties’ objectives as possible. Its success is monitored by checking in with the participants’ emotions and making adjustments as necessary. That sort of fairness rarely can be captured in across-the-board rules, other than in the rule that each person’s needs will be considered and hopefully addressed.

What’s someone driven by harmony doing in law, you might ask?  Female attributes are useful to law firms in many respects. Women are the ones who serve successfully on the recruiting, diversity, associate development and pro bono committees, committees where “people skills” are highly valued but which aren’t accorded much credit in firms’ compensation structures.  Their skills also are likely to produce superior resolutions of conflict, both within the firm and with third parties. Perhaps most importantly, what adds to the bottom line is lawyers who can build and keep solid relationships with their clients so successfully that those clients would hesitate long and hard before heading to another firm. In my experience, women are often the ones who have those talents.

Because of my work, I am occasionally asked by my friends and colleagues to advise their daughters who are interested in a career in law. The daughters want to know whether they can reliably make a lot of money and still have a life, and the parents want to know whether their daughters can have a life and still make money. After reviewing their personality profile, I look to see whether these women are likely to find a home in law practice that doesn’t offend their values.

I admit that I rarely recommend that the daughters pursue a legal career.

Of course there are many highly competent female lawyers whom the profession is lucky to have.  And some number of them are very happy in their work.  They are our courageous canaries in the mines of law labor, without whom other women would have even less of a chance. But they often stand against odds that are greatly against many women’s natural inclinations.

What’s to be done? What’s needed is a paradigm shift in culture that is hard to accomplish in one fell swoop.  Hiring, training, work assignments, client teams, promotion and compensation will have to be consciously retooled with this recalcitrant problem in mind. All of us—both men and women–are going to have to change our mindset to something that is infinitely more uncomfortable than what we come to intuitively.  And it will be at the risk of feeling like we are being pushed to defect to the other side:  men will resist becoming too sentimental and women will recoil from feeling too hard-nosed.

We will, in short, have to entertain, respect and even embrace “the other” viewpoint, the true mark of achieving diversity.


The Psychology of Malpractice

Posted in Assessments, Client Service, Emotional Intelligence, Leadership, Management, Professional Development, Profitability, Risk Management, Uncategorized

Does low emotional intelligence (EI) put lawyers at higher risk for malpractice liability?

Lawyers test at low emotional intelligence compared to the general population and other professions. They are particularly low in a critical component of emotional intelligence: emotional perception, or awareness of their own and others’ emotions.

Being out of touch with one’s emotions has been demonstrated to increase malpractice liability among doctors. An empirical link exists between poor communication and subsequent malpractice litigation among primary care physicians, with poor communication cited in over 40% of medical malpractice suits. Low emotional intelligence often accounts for that poor communication. In a study involving medical students who described their emotional response to a traumatic medical event, those demonstrating “emotional disengagement” were later rated by patients as having poorer specific and overall communication skills.

Low emotional intelligence has also been found to impair the ability of doctors to establish strong relationships with their patients.  Strong relationships are apparently what inoculates doctors from medical malpractice claims. “If a doctor and patient have a strong relationship, even if something goes wrong, they are less likely to be sued for it,” says Robin Diamond, chief patient safety officer at Doctors Co., which provides malpractice insurance for 73,000 physicians. In order to reduce malpractice claims, WellStar Health System, with five hospitals and more than 550 doctors, is using emotional intelligence training to help doctors significantly improve their communication.

So are lawyers with relatively low emotional intelligence at higher risk for malpractice claims?

An article written in 2000 entitled “Love, Hate, and Other Emotional Interference in the Lawyer/Client Relationship” highlighted the impact of emotions on lawyer/client relationships. The author detailed a laundry list of instances of lawyerly poor judgment and misconduct resulting in disciplinary sanctions, malpractice liability, civil liability and even criminal liability. The author’s assessment was that these behaviors were the result of poor emotional intelligence, a new concept at the time.  She concluded that increasing emotional intelligence in lawyers offered a path to less exposure to those types of liability.

In reviewing the ABA’s Standing Committee on Lawyers Professional Liability from 2000-2007, the Chicago, IL American Bar Association found that:  “At the most elemental level of law practice, emotional intelligence appears to be necessary for attorneys to avoid malpractice liability… [N]early one-half of all malpractice claims allege errors relating to professional skills required in pre-trial evaluations, negotiations and settlements.  These skills necessarily entail an integration of substantive legal knowledge with a broader range of competencies embraced by emotional intelligence [emphasis added]—listening, understanding, communicating, conceptualizing, anticipating, simulating, and perspective-taking.” See Randall Kiser’s Beyond Right and Wrong: The Power of Effective Decision Making for Attorneys and Clients.

According to the Canadian insurer The Lawyers’ Professional Indemnity Company (LAWPRO), which insures all attorneys in Ontario for malpractice, the major cause of malpractice claims there has shifted during the last thirty years from calendaring mistakes to “attorney/client communication and relationship issues,”exactly what the medical profession sees as the source of malpractice claims. The ABA says the U.S. and LAWPRO “show relatively similar claims experiences.”

One of the factors involved in attorney malpractice may be lawyers’ difficulties in assessing risk, a result attributable at least in part to their low emotional intelligence. An important study found that those with higher emotional understanding could distinguish whether specific emotions they were experiencing were relevant to the decisions they were making involving risk. Those high in EI were able to sort out whether their emotions, such as anxiety, were produced by the characteristics of the deal or by something else.  Because of that understanding, they were able to ignore incidental emotions that were not relevant to the deal and make a more balanced decision, sometimes even taking on more risk than they initially considered appropriate.

As the lead author explained: “People often make decisions that are influenced by emotions that have nothing to do with the decisions…  But our investigation reveals that if they have emotional intelligence, they are protected from these biases… People who are emotionally intelligent don’t remove all emotions from their decision-making… They remove emotions that have nothing to do with the decision.”

The implication for lawyers is that our low emotional intelligence levels makes us vulnerable to inaccurately assessing the risk associated with a situation because we are unable to accurately assess what our emotions regarding the matter are or what those emotions are caused by.  In addition, lawyers’ typically high pessimism would make it hard to expect a positive outcome to a risky situation and our typically low resilience would make it hard to commit to a path that could result in failure, from which it would be difficult to recover.

Hence, logically there would be a self-protective tendency in lawyers to avoid risk that in some cases may not even be there.  That notorious aversion to risk may be doing our clients a major disservice, a disservice that could also result in liability.

The high level of distress among lawyers is also a considerable factor–according to some researchers distress alone is sufficient to raise significantly the incidence of legal malpractice. Attributes of emotional distress that prime lawyers for malpractice include short and long-term memory loss, and the inability to solve simple math problems, process language, engage in analytical thinking and critical reasoning, and deal with negative information.  Other impairments include a narrowed focus of attention and a reduced capacity to develop creative ideas, empathize or to understand other perspectives. Emotional intelligence provides lawyers with the tools to manage stress before it becomes distress.

Not only is the distressed lawyer at greater risk for malpractice, but his/her firm risks being disciplined for failure to identify and correct an attorney essentially missing in action.

Thus, attorneys who lack emotional intelligence represent a swelling financial risk for law firms and malpractice insurers. See also Randall Kiser’s How Leading Lawyers Think.

Reducing malpractice claims and liability requires that we understand what drives them. Hiring more emotionally intelligent lawyers, making more emotionally intelligent partners, and providing professional training to raise emotional intelligence in our firms can put us on a path to lower malpractice liability and greater profit.


Building Your Emotional Vocabulary

Posted in Assessments, Client Service, Coaching, Communication, Conflict, Culture, Decision-Making, Emotional Intelligence, Leadership, Management, Mentoring, Retention, Wellness

One of the ways to improve our emotional intelligence, and therefore improve our decision-making, our productivity. our personal interactions and our well-being, is to expand our vocabulary with respect to emotions.

We experience hundreds of shades of emotion every day. While five to seven emotions are considered basic, combinations of those emotions blend together to produce a multiplicity of emotional experiences. So anger, sadness, fear, surprise, disgust, shame and joy, for example, can morph through combination and intensity into feelings of frustration, rage, distress, sorrow, apprehension, uneasiness, anxiety, embarrassment, mortification, annoyance, contempt, contentedness, admiration, confidence and ecstasy.

In the workplace, emotions tend toward the negative–anxiety, fear, anger, disappointment, resentment, jealousy. These emotions can have profoundly negative impacts on our bodies and minds, particularly if we are saturated with them and their related fight-or-flight hormones over time. Unfortunately, joy and its correlates, which can bring positive benefits, may be the emotion least experienced in the workplace.

Being able to identify emotions is a key step to disarming them. “Naming our emotions tends to diffuse their charge and lessen the burden they create.” And managing emotions requires first that we know what emotions need to be managed. As psychologist Dan Siegel has said, “you have to name it to tame it.” Yet a study by TalentSmart found that in a test of over 500,000 people globally, only 36% were able to accurately identify the emotions that were influencing them at any given time.

How accurate are you in naming your own emotional landscape, or that of those around you? In emotional intelligence assessments, lawyers score not only low generally compared to other professions but our lowest score is on the subscore relating to accurately perceiving one’s own and others’emotions, putting us significantly below the general population’s 36% awareness.

Why is it that we are so woefully out of touch with emotions? The emotional vocabulary is not one that is used or prized in our industry.  In fact, the law tends to scrub its language of any words that relate to emotion. And unfortunately our workplaces reflect that tendency, not only in the absence of emotion words but also in how emotionally arid they often feel.

Yale’s Center for Emotional Intelligence promotes a simple acronym for improving emotional intelligence in school settings: RULER, which stands for Recognition, Understanding, Labeling, Expression and Regulation.  By giving students a more extensive and accurate labeling vocabulary, the Center has determined that the students are then in a better position to recognize emotions in themselves and others, understand the causes and consequences of emotions, express emotions appropriately and regulate their emotions effectively. In one exercise targeted at expanding their labeling ability, students are encouraged to check in with themselves every hour and write down what emotions they are feeling.

Lawyers can expand their emotional vocabulary in the same way.  There are apps that facilitate checking in with yourself emotionally, such as MyMoodTracker for iPhones, which allows you to name, gauge and track your emotions, complete with a reminder on whatever schedule you prefer. Asking a friend, colleague or spouse who seems sensitive to emotions to comment on an interchange by using emotion words is also helpful. Verbally noticing what you or others are experiencing–“I am feeling overwhelmed and distracted by my daughter’s illness,” or “You seem discouraged by the turn the case has taken”–also helps expand awareness and vocabulary. You can try out your emotion vocabulary by watching a movie in another language or with the sound off (great to do on the plane) and seeing how many emotions you can name based on facial expressions and body language.

One CEO who has gone on a personal crusade to be more aware of his emotions confessed, “I still have occasions when negative emotions rise up in me outside of my awareness. The impact shows up in the tone of my voice or my choice of words, and my solution has been to turn to colleagues for help. Any time they sense that I might be feeling negative emotions, I’ve asked that they simply ask me, ‘How are you feeling?’ That’s usually all it takes for me to notice. By noticing, I’m almost always able to manage whatever is going on inside me more gracefully.”

So you can always ask yourself or others, “How are you feeling?”



Moral Disengagement and the Law

Posted in Client Service, Conflict, Decision-Making, Emotional Intelligence, Ethics, Law Education, Leadership, Management, Professional Development, Risk Management

Commentators have remarked for years on the decline in ethical standards among lawyers, leading to increasing charges of fraud, theft, breach of fiduciary duties, among other crimes, and also pure incivility.

Even lawyers have long thought that lawyers are behaving inappropriately and should be more closely monitored: in one survey, 62% of the lawyers surveyed believed lawyers are inadequately policing lawyer misconduct.  Not the least of those bemoaning the state of professionalism in the law was Warren Burger in a 1993 Tennessee Law Review article entitled The Decline of Professionalism. The economic recession that began in 2008 is viewed by some as a monument to unethical practices by banking and legal professionals, one that damaged the general economy and individual organizations involved, as well as industry reputations. And one that hasn’t resulted in raising the level of our professionalism. See our entries “What’s Ethics Got To Do With It?” Part 1 and Part 2 for further discussions of the ethical state of our profession.

Why is there at least a perceived level of ethical failings among lawyers? Albert Bandura, the David Starr Jordan Professor of Social Science in Psychology at Stanford University, has developed a line of psychological research called “moral disengagement.” It focuses on what makes some people “disengage” from what they know to be the morally appropriate path–convincing themselves that in a particular instance the normal ethical rules don’t apply. “This new knowledge provides better understanding about the psychological mechanisms which deactivate moral self-regulation and allow people to make unethical decisions more easily,” which is “highly relevant to understanding unethical behavior in 21st century organizations.”

Moral disengagement occupies the place between normal ethical behavior on the one hand and the absence of ethical restraints exhibited by Machiavellians, sociopaths and psychopaths, on the extreme other.

Bandura has identified “eight cognitive tactics,” i.e. things we tell ourselves, that deactivate our ethical standards:

1. Moral Justification – making the harm appear more morally justifiable
2. Euphemistic Labeling – using morally neutral language to make bad conduct sound benign
3. Advantageous Comparison – trivializing one’s unethical behavior by comparing it with more harmful conduct
4. Displacement of Responsibility – blaming someone else for bad behavior
5. Diffusion of Responsibility – claiming no one individual but the whole group was responsible
6. Distortion of Consequences – trivializing the harm by noting limited consequences
7. Dehumanization – not recognizing the target of the harm
8. Attribution of Blame – blaming the victim

Nearly all of these tactics can be found to some degree in the various exampcited in our ethics entries noted above.  There’s also the story of the staffer who worked in a law school’s career services office tracking graduate job statistics, among other things. The dean repeatedly pressured her to record those statistics other than as dictated by the ABA regulations, she said, saying among other things that padding numbers was ok because “everyone does it.”

Lawyers are, of course, by both training and practice, particularly good at defending and justifying their own actions, including their most suspect ones. “Successful people tend to have that ability to compartmentalize and juggle competing demands and loyalties. And lawyers, in particular, are very good at it. There is no group I can think of that practices the psychological act of compartmentalization with more dexterity and willingness than lawyers,” according to James Dolan, a psychologist who specializes in treating lawyers. “Indeed, it may be the basic intellectual act of law practice.”

This compartmentalization is of course what many lawyers see as necessary in order to be effective advocates.   By separating their personal values from what they consider to be solely rational arguments, they can represent morally repugnant clients and causes in furtherance of their professional duty to render competent representation.

Yet this ability to compartmentalize away their personal morals and rely almost entirely on rationality is also what may lead lawyers astray in their own conduct.

Bandura contends that people with one or more of the following four attributes will be more predisposed to moral disengagement than others:

• Low Empathy – less ability to recognize others’ feelings
• High Cynicism – a general attitude of disillusionment and distrust
• Lack of Control – belief that chance or powerful others control outcomes in their lives
• Weak Moral Identity– lower standards expected of oneself

Of Bandura’s four predispositions to moral disengagement, lawyers are likely to exhibit the first three: low empathy, high cynicism, and feelings of lack of control, and may possibly also exhibit the fourth—a weak moral identity. We have sound data that lawyers score low on empathy and high on cynicism. Feeling little control is often associated with highly structured practices–it is, after all, the supervising partner or the client or the executive committee who are ultimately in control of decisions, we often tell ourselves.  We are just the vehicle to make what they want happen. A strong moral identity is often not promoted in our business, neither in our law school training nor in our professional development. The Carnegie Foundation found in 2007 that “a number of studies have shown that law students’ moral reasoning does not appear to develop to any significant degree during law school.”

Exhibiting low emotional intelligence scores, lawyers are also less likely to hear their own “gut” feelings about ethical propriety, in addition to being out of touch with how their actions may affect others.  Guilt, fear and anxiety can be helpful signals telling us that the path ahead is not without risks.  Shutting off our access to those emotions can hobble our ability to make moral decisions. One study demonstrated that those with the ability to feel guilt, empathy and other emotional states were less likely to advocate a corporate misdeed or participate in deception or misrepresentation in connection with their company or colleagues.

There are certainly heroes of ethical conduct among us. In a UK case involving the bankrupting of a company, a British regulatory tribunal issued a severe reprimand and a record fine against Deloitte  LLP, as well as the disbarment of and fine against its corporate finance partner. Deloitte and the partner had “placed their own interests ahead of that of the public and compromised their own objectivity… a flagrant disregard of the professional standards expected and required.” The company directors convicted in connection with the case contended that a partner in a prominent English law firm that was advising the company kept them from receiving their full, and suspect, compensation package. Their position was that “it wasn’t her position to be raising questions about the directors’ remuneration and that she had done it on a number of occasions in a way that… was inappropriate.” The law firm, they asserted, “was not anybody’s moral guardian.”  The court’s response: “We do not accept this.”

Congratulations to this English lawyer for having the courage to refuse to facilitate the looting of a public company. Ethical and moral questions in the practice of law are by their very nature both tricky yet imperative to sort out properly.  Being a lawyer may be the biggest risk factor involved.


More on Love and the Law

Posted in Client Service, Conflict, Culture, Decision-Making, Emotional Intelligence, Leadership, Management, Productivity, Professional Development, Profitability, Retention, Risk Management, Teamwork, Uncategorized, Wellness, Work Satisfaction, Work/Life Balance

In our 2013 entry “The Law: What’s Love Got To Do With It?“, we noted the movement toward integrative law, which  “Pauline Tesler, director of the Integrative Law Institute, believes… is the next ‘huge wave coming to the legal profession.’ As she explains, this type of practice is aimed at ‘out-of-court solutions and the well-being of all players in the legal system, lawyers and clients included.'” Meditation was noted as one of the practices being embraced by the movement to improve practitioners’ ability to be compassionate or loving, both towards themselves and others.

Compassionate?  Lawyers? Well, what if being more compassionate resulted in better results, for our clients and ourselves?

In Making the Case for Love in Your Law Firm, Christy Cassisa notes a study at a large nonprofit long-term health-care facility and hospital that explored the influence the emotional environment has on employee, patient and family outcomes, which went on to compare results in a number of other industries as well. As one of the study authors concluded, “Overall, we found that — regardless of the industry baseline — to the extent that there’s a greater culture of companionate love, that culture is associated with greater satisfaction, commitment and accountability.”

Cassisa argues that lawyers start out compassionate. “We are a profession that is supposedly comprised of counselors and advisors. Many of us were drawn to the law by an internal, idealistic desire to do good and to help others. And our clients are very frequently in great emotional distress… [but] burnout and compassion fatigue are very real in our profession.”

Law firms can take a page from the companies that are making “love” part of their culture. Google offers emotional intelligence courses for employees, General Mills has a meditation room in every building on its corporate campus, and even hard-nosed firms like Goldman Sachs and BlackRock are teaching meditation on the job. These programs are trying to make employees more “present” in their work, more inclined to make better-considered decisions and generally nicer to work with.

As reported last month in The New York Times, Mark T. Bertolini, the CEO of Aetna, overhauled both his own personal health regimen and the culture at Aetna after a personal near-death experience. The company now offers free yoga and mindfulness meditation classes, which are in huge demand, with more than 13,000 employees participating. “Meditation is not about thinking about nothing,” Bertolini is quoted as saying. “It’s about accepting what you think, giving reverence to it and letting it go. It’s losing the attachment to it. Same thing with pain.” Aetna is also selling the same classes to the businesses that contract with Aetna for their health insurance.

So what is the impact of this touchy-feely culture on a competitive company like this? After the first three months of offering these classes, Aetna analyzed data they found “astounding.” Employees participating in the yoga and meditation classes report a 28% reduction in their stress levels, a 20% improvement in sleep quality and a 19% reduction in pain. They also become more effective on the job, with each gaining an average of 62 minutes per week  of productivity that Aetna estimates is worth $3,000 per employee per year. “All employees who stuck with either the yoga or the mindfulness reported significant reduction in perceived stress and sleep difficulties… the study also found that physical measures of heart rate variability and cortisol levels had both decreased.” In addition, after a year, paid medical claims per employee were down 7.3%, or roughly $9 million. The results of Aetna’s study were published in The Journal of Occupational Health Psychology in 2012. Then in January, after reading “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” the treatise on inequality by the French economist Thomas Piketty, Mr. Bertolini gave his lowest-paid employees a 33% raise.

So that must have taken a toll on the company’s bottom line that wiped out all those feel-good gains? “Aetna’s stock has increased threefold since Mr. Bertolini took over as chief executive in 2010, and recently hit a record high.”

What specific steps can we take to build more compassion into our lawerly lives? Cassisa gives a roadmap in 10 Strategies for Bringing More Love into the Law. As she notes, “some will conflict with your legal training — and maybe even your personal upbringing. Science backs every single one.” Here are excerpts:

1. Understand biology. From day one in law school we are conditioned to believe competition and fear are inevitable, but those states trigger basic survival strategies that can actually lead to inferior performance. Understanding it is the first step in managing this biological programming.

2. Accept evolution. [W]e are also wired to share emotions, and this means what I feel will be transmitted to you, whether you or I want it or not. The fact that we have social brains means that we must learn to be aware of what we are feeling to better control what we are sharing.

3. Increase self-awareness. This one is tricky for a profession notoriously low in emotional intelligence. But self-awareness can be cultivated and improved. It’s a challenge — looking oneself in the mirror and really seeing what is there. But we can develop self-awareness with conscious effort and practice. Take a personality or emotional intelligence assessment. Practice reflection and journaling. Ask respected colleagues what they see. Open your ears and mind to receiving what is there to be learned.

4. Practice mindfulness. Become aware of both the internal landscape of your experience (automatic habits, recurrent thought patterns, emotional reactivity) as well as the external environment and stimuli. You might take a conscious breath every time you leave your office, meditate for 10 minutes before launching into your day, eat a meal mindfully, or take a five-minute mindful walk. By inserting small steps like these into your day, you can experience immense improvements in your awareness, resilience and state of mind.

5. Choose responses. [I]dentify your own habitual reactions. For example, becoming defensive when that client calls incessantly, feeling panic when facing an inbox overflowing with emails, hiding in the bathroom when you have an upcoming deposition, competing with colleagues in meetings or eating a cookie at 3 p.m. Pick one habitual response and work on noticing the impulse right when it arises. Then before acting, take 10 deep breaths. This allows the brain to re-engage so you can choose your response.

6. Create new habits. Choose one behavior that you’d like to see more of from yourself and practice it for one month. Perhaps it’s learning to compliment your significant other. Or exercising in the morning. Eating healthier. [B]e intentional and construct a plan to integrate these behaviors into your life and make them permanent. For example, set an alert on your phone to remind you to compliment your partner. Calendar those exercise appointments. Schedule a day off with nothing planned other than curling up with a good book.

7. Practice gratitude. Research shows that those who practice gratitude have stronger immune systems, sleep better, have lower rates of depression and anxiety, are more resilient and are happier overall. Gratitude blocks negative emotions like envy and aggression and promotes altruism and goodwill toward others. Practice gratitude by keeping a journal of what you are thankful for, or just saying a sincere thank you to people in your life.

8. Build social relationships. Yes, at work. (And no, not necessarily over drinks.) Taking time to get to know co-workers on a personal level builds social community,  helps you better understand and empathize with one another, and makes it more likely that you will take opportunities to help and even lift up one another. So take the time to foster those relationships. Send notes of encouragement and support, celebrate birthdays, offer an ear or a hug of support. These small moments will build a more caring and satisfying work environment.

9. Practice compassion. Research shows that people who practice compassion are mentally and physically healthier, recover more quickly from disease and even live longer. But it’s hard to nail your adversaries to the wall when you have compassion for them and empathy for their case. Putting oneself in another’s shoes and wanting to alleviate their pain seems counter-intuitive in our adversarial system of justice. What the law is really about. Only you can answer that for yourself.

10. Give yourself a break. You’re human, just like the rest of us. Beating yourself up for making a mistake is actually detrimental to performance. Research shows that practicing self-compassion, or kindness toward yourself, leads to greater motivation to improve after failure. Lawyers in particular can be perfectionists, and that can lead to depression, substance abuse or worse. Try letting that go and see how it changes the way you relate to other humans.

In the competitive, hard-charging world of modern legal practice, couldn’t you and your firm use some profit-stoking compassion?

Leadership: What Really Matters

Posted in Conflict, Decision-Making, Leadership, Management, Profitability, Teamwork, Uncategorized, Work Satisfaction

According to an article in the January 2015 McKinsey and Company Quarterly Newsletter, Decoding leadership: What Really Matters,”[o]ver 90 percent of CEOs are already planning to increase investment in leadership development because they see it as the single most important human-capital issue their organizations face. And they’re right to do so: earlier McKinsey research has consistently shown that good leadership is a critical part of organizational health, which is an important driver of shareholder returns.”

But one of the questions raised by legal departments and legal firms, as well as companies the world over, is what type of leadership training really impacts performance?  What exactly are we trying to train our leaders to do?  McKinsey and Company has an answer, which we quote:

“Our most recent research… suggests that a small subset of leadership skills closely correlates with leadership success, particularly among frontline leaders. Using our own practical experience and searching the relevant academic literature, we came up with a comprehensive list of 20 distinct leadership traits. Next, we surveyed 189,000 people in 81 diverse organizations [in location, size, industry and effectiveness] around the world to assess how frequently certain kinds of leadership behavior are applied within their organizations. Finally, we divided the sample into organizations whose leadership performance was strong (the top quartile of leadership effectiveness as measured by McKinsey’s Organizational Health Index) and those that were weak (bottom quartile)…

“What we found was that leaders in organizations with high-quality leadership teams typically displayed 4 of the 20 possible types of behavior; these 4, indeed, explained 89 percent of the variance between strong and weak organizations in terms of leadership effectiveness.”  Those four are:

“1. Solving problems effectively. The process that precedes decision making is problem solving, when information is gathered, analyzed, and considered. This is deceptively difficult to get right, yet it is a key input into decision making for major issues (such as M&A) as well as daily ones (such as how to handle a team dispute).

2. Operating with a strong results orientation. Leadership is about not only developing and communicating a vision and setting objectives but also following through to achieve results. Leaders with a strong results orientation tend to emphasize the importance of efficiency and productivity and to prioritize the highest-value work.

3. Seeking different perspectives. This trait is conspicuous in managers who monitor trends affecting organizations, grasp changes in the environment, encourage employees to contribute ideas that could improve performance, accurately differentiate between important and unimportant issues, and give the appropriate weight to stakeholder concerns. Leaders who do well on this dimension typically base their decisions on sound analysis and avoid the many biases to which decisions are prone.

4. Supporting others. Leaders who are supportive understand and sense how other people feel. By showing authenticity and a sincere interest in those around them, they build trust and inspire and help colleagues to overcome challenges. They intervene in group work to promote organizational efficiency, allaying unwarranted fears about external threats and preventing the energy of employees from dissipating into internal conflict.

We’re not saying that the centuries-old debate about what distinguishes great leaders is over or that context is unimportant. Experience shows that different business situations often require different styles of leadership. We do believe, however, that our research points to a kind of core leadership behavior that will be relevant to most companies today, notably on the front line. For organizations investing in the development of their future leaders, prioritizing these four areas is a good place to start.”

Looking at law firm and law department leadership priorities, the last two behaviors outlined by McKinsey are ones that may not be fully appreciated.  Seeking different perspectives involves a degree of listening to others and encouragement and validation of others’ opinions that not all lawyer leaders exhibit.  Often, the lawyer leader operates from a more hierarchical, authoritarian orientation: “I know what is best and my job is to get you to acknowledge and do that.” Even without questioning the truth of that proposition, different perspectives are invaluable in vetting it.

The failure in the legal workplace to support others or recognize that trait as a valuable leadership skill is even more apparent. The operative word here is understanding and sensing how others “feel,” a recognition and exploration of emotions that is often anathema  to the legal mindset of “only the facts, ma’am.”  The typically low resilience of lawyers makes us particularly in need of the kind of leadership support that inspires and helps overcome the myriad challenges omnipresent in legal practice.

Leadership training is a valid exercise that legal firms and law departments should realize substantial returns from IF the training is for the appropriate skills.  Which is not to say that business development success or financial expertise or subject matter competence is irrelevant, but let’s make sure our leadership training and succession programs are focusing on all four of these priorities that McKinsey has identified.


Stress for Better and Worse

Posted in Books, Client Service, Communication, Conflict, Culture, Emotional Intelligence, Leadership, Management, Mentoring, Productivity, Profitability, Recruitment, Retention, Teamwork, Work Satisfaction

The Center for Creative Leadership’s 2013 White Paper on “The Surprising Truth about What Drives Stress and How Leaders Build Resilience” lists stress and burnout as the top two issues leaders worldwide wrestle with. “Burnout” is a syndrome caused by excessive stress which can produce physical, emotional and mental exhaustion.  Burnout is the end game of deepening stress.

The Devastation of Constant Stress

The effects of prolonged stress on our bodies and our minds are well documented.  Rather than experiencing just a shot of cortisol, the fight or flight hormone that revs us up to deal with a problem, uncontrolled stress can put us into constant cortisol overload. Abdominal fat builds up, we become insulin resistant, our arteries stiffen and blood pressure rises, heart rate and blood flow increase, often damaging and eventually blocking vessel walls, all putting us at higher risk for coronary disease. We may speak more loudly or experience lapses in judgment or logic. Hands and feet grow cold as blood rushes to the body’s core. Research shows the heart often beats erratically, spiking again and again. White blood cell production and therefore immune functioning is impaired, making us more likely to succumb to all sorts of illness.

Just the avalanche of negative thoughts that stress can provoke can impact our health.  In Mind Over Medicine, a book about the power of placebos, Dr. Lissa Rankin found that negative thoughts have physiologically damaging impacts while positive thoughts set off the release of powerful healing hormones and neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, nitric oxide, and endorphins into our blood stream. “Our bodies’ natural repair systems can’t work properly if we’re chronically stressed or pessimistic.”

A 2004 study conducted by Dr. Elissa Epel and Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn of the University of California at San Francisco found the first piece of biological evidence establishing a direct link between high stress levels and rates of aging– those suffering from long-term stress had shorter, more deteriorated telomeres (a piece of DNA that is found at the tip of chromosomes in each cell in the body).  According to Denis Novack, Professor of Medicine and Associate Dean of Medical Education at Drexel University College of Medicine at Drexel University, “there is no such thing as a separation of mind and body — the very molecules in our bodies are responsive to our psychological environment.”

High stress unequivocally reduces our intellectual functioning. According to researcher Coutu in a 2008 study, “Stressed people don’t do math very well. They don’t process language very efficiently, and they have poorer memories, both short- and long-term.”  Math and language abilities can drop as much as 50% because of excessive stress. As Rick Hanson PhD, a California-based neuropsychologist, explains, “stress is like fine sand being drizzled into the brain. It might keep working, but if you dump enough sand in there, it’ll freeze up at some point.”

Stress also exacts an emotional price, which in turn can be physically and intellectually debilitating. Researchers are finding that emotional pain produced by stress is felt and processed in the brain just as physical pain is and in the same area, the anterior cingulate cortex.  To the same extent that physical pain is debilitating, so is the emotional pain associated with depression, substance abuse or disengagement that stress can cause.

Stress has an outsized impact on our organizations’ productivity and profitability, as well. According to an article in the HBR, a Gallup survey found disengagement and stress to be major inhibitors of productivity and retention. “The American Institute of Stress reports [in 2013] that stress is the main cause underlying 40% of workplace turnovers and 80% of work-related injuries, costing companies millions of dollars annually.”

The typically high stress in the American workplace has been exacerbated by the recession and high unemployment rates.  According to a Forbes article, another Gallup poll “indicated that ‘U.S. Workers are Least Happy with Their Work Stress and Pay’ out of 13 aspects of work conditions. Well over a third of those surveyed said they were ‘totally dissatisfied’ with the amount of on-the-job-stress…”  In a 2012 StressPulseSM survey by ComPsych Corp, which provides employee assistance programs, 63% of the employees polled said they had high levels of stress with extreme fatigue and feeling out of control. According to Dr. Richard A. Chaifetz, CEO of ComPsych,  ‘people who currently have jobs – many of whom have taken on extra work – are starting to show signs of prolonged stress. This can result in burnout and reduced performance.’”

One study found that those who are depressed are particularly hampered in their ability to recognize and therefore manage their and others’ negative feelings, including the very feelings that are fueling their depression. An interesting NIH-funded study published in 2011 in Psychosomatic Medicine also found that in people with high blood pressure, “the emotion-recognizing ability [is] reduced… even after taking into account medication use and other factors.”  Leading to “emotional dampening,” hypertension evidently “reduces the ability to recognize anger, fear, sadness, and other emotions in people’s faces.”

Whether caused by one’s own depression or high blood pressure, this emotional dampening can lead to further difficulties. According to the authors: “In complex social situations like work settings, people rely on facial expressions and verbal emotional cues to interact with others. If we have emotional dampening, we may distrust others because we cannot read emotional meaning in their face or their verbal communications. We may even take more risks because we cannot fully appraise threats in the environment.” The authors believe that emotional dampening may be implicated in clinical disorders of emotion regulation, such as bipolar disorders and depression.

A recent article in the WSJ points out that our stress can also have adverse consequences on those around us, as well.  When under stress, subjects in an experiment were less likely to “feel another’s pain.” As one of the researchers note, “It’s rare to find individuals in whom stress brings out the best—fostering calm, rational thinking, deep humanity and the notion that strangers are just friends you’ve yet to meet. More typically, stress literally and metaphorically narrows our field of vision; it tends to makes us less generous and cooperative in economic games, more xenophobic, more likely to interpret ambiguous expressions as hostile ones, and more likely to displace frustration and aggression onto those around us. As this new study on the biology of stress found, it also makes us less likely to feel someone else’s pain.” Burnout’s emotional exhaustion has also been demonstrated to produce negative attitudes and lowered empathy, and to lead to depersonalizing clients and colleagues.

It is no surprise, then, that one of the tragedies of stress is that the debilitation it causes often robs people of their ability to be securely connected socially, which in turn produces further anxiety and depression and debilitation. “People who feel more connected to others have lower rates of anxiety and depression; studies show that they also have higher self-esteem, are more empathic to others, are more trusting and cooperative and, as a consequence, others are more open to trusting and cooperating with them. Social connectedness therefore generates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional, and physical well-being. Unfortunately, the opposite is true for those who lack social connectedness.”  So, for example, “[d]ampening of positive emotions may rob one of the restorative benefits of close personal relations, vacations and hobbies.”

Sound familiar?  Lawyers have higher rates of distress–in large part arising out of poorly managed stress– than any other profession.  The debilitation that many lawyers experience because of their distress may further exasperate their professional and personal functioning, which then in turn fuels their distress.

Stress for Good 

There is, however, a good side to stress. People experiencing beneficial or “adaptive” stress feel pumped. The blood vessels dilate, increasing blood flow to help the brain, muscles and limbs meet a challenge, similar to the effects of aerobic exercise, according to research by Wendy Mendes, an associate professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, and others.

Finding the right balance between the kind of stress that produces optimal performance and that which devastates is one of the better tricks for all professionals to learn.

There are a number of steps to take to try to rein in the negative effects of stress.  Recognizing when one is highly stressed, and the triggers that produce it is a start. Being able to step back enough to decide how best to deal with a stressful situation or person is a good next step.  Focusing on positive thoughts during the stressful event and then making sure that you recharge or rest afterwards help moderate the constancy of stress. Deep abdominal breathing and training in meditation and mindfulness, which help develop an ability to regulate one’s own mental and physical states, also help moderate stress.

Creating constructive emotional states, such as a sense of having control, has been demonstrated to be important in effectively dealing with stress.  Hundreds of people participating in Harvard’s executive-education programs reported less stress and anxiety than did the general population and were also found to have cortisol levels comparable to the average levels of the general population. “Moreover, the higher their rank and the more subordinates they managed, the lower their cortisol level.” Why? “Most likely because the leaders had a heightened sense of control—a psychological factor known to have a powerful stress-buffering effect.… Such leaders face troubles without being troubled. Their behavior is not relaxed, but they are relaxed emotionally.”

Setting positive expectations of stress can also ameliorate the bad and promote the good impacts. One study coached college students to believe that feeling nervous or excited before a presentation could improve their performance, and in fact it did, and they also had increased dilation of the arteries and smaller rises in blood pressure compared to the control group. In a similar study, students who received the same coaching before taking graduate-school entrance exams posted higher scores on a mock test in the lab and also on the actual exam three months later. They also posted higher levels of salivary amylase, a protein marker for adrenaline that is linked to episodes of beneficial stress.

As one legal consultant has pointed out, stress is no doubt with us always but we can still watch and learn–and manage our attitudes about stress, sometimes even to hilarious effect.

Many workplace wellness programs have begun coaching people on how to hit an optimal performance zone with enough stress to stimulate success but not take a physical or psychological toll. Has your firm taken that important step?