At a time of roiling emotions in the legal and financial sectors, successfully charting a path to the future may be impacted by how we perceive and respond to those emotions in our organizations.  A recent article entitled “Associates Should Keep Their Emotions in Check” advocates guarding the emotions associates experience in the law practice setting.

“We can’t be distracted by crying about our recently fired colleagues when we have to depose the CEO of a multinational conglomerate,” it explains. “Being in touch with–and in control of–your emotions is key to success at Biglaw.”

Lawyers at all levels–not just associates–often score poorly on emotional intelligence assessments because of their reduced ability to do just that–be in touch with and in control of their emotions.  So that advice looks good on first impression, but the body of the article, while often tongue-in-cheek, makes it clear that ignoring or suppressing emotions have historically been the real keys to law practice success.  That advice, in black and white, is not only disarming but also not well suited to the trials lawyers and law firms have before them.

Historical Emotions and the Wave of the Future

Of those emotions historically expressed in law firms and law departments, certainly some have been much more prevalent, and welcome, than others. Joy, for example, is not an emotion that lawyers have exhibited readily.  OK, it’s all right to strut your stuff after a critical win:  a big jury verdict, or the final go-ahead from the FTC.  You should also be able to feign your way through an evident appreciation of your client’s or supervising partner’s adventure stories.  But neither of these is really joy–more like pride and socially sanctioned deception, respectively.

Joy is what is felt when you’re in that great limitless zone of both doing what you are good at and feeling there is value and meaning to what you do.  Joy is in short supply in legal practice these days and when it arises, it is too often squelched by the pessimists who view it as evidence of not working hard enough (so as to be appropriately worn down) or not taking seriously the heavy risks associated with the job (so as to be appropriately worn down).

Sadness, joy’s opposite, has not been very evident in law practice either, often viewed as a sign of weakness.  Drag around about your spouse leaving you or your dog dying and, in this climate, you risk losing your job because of being perceived as not up to it.  The irony is that sadness, in particularly the serious kind that develops into depression, is in fact up to ten times more prevalent among lawyers than any other profession–so even if you can’t always see it, it is there.  And the characteristic pessimism that puts lawyers in good stead in the courtroom and boardroom makes it harder in these difficult times for the sad to see the light at the end of the tunnel.  So sadness in the office may be on the rise.

Fear is also one that we lawyers eschew to avoid looking weak.  But fear may be an emotion that is more in evidence these days too: fear about everything from the global economy down to the mortgage payments no one is going to bail you out of.  And those fears, the full range of them, may well be what is motivating strategy at a number of firms now.  Combined with pessimism, fear is a motivator that can hijack the deliberative process, sacrificing long-term health for a short-term salve.

Perhaps the one emotion with which lawyers are openly familiar is anger.  One of the few raw emotions long allowed to flow freely in law firms, it seems most accepted in senior lawyers. Screaming, slamming the door, cussing out opposing counsel on the phone–these are often taken as evidence of practicing hardball in a high-pressure, high-powered job.  The anger that is not embraced is the one simmering among the stressed-out associates, who don’t appreciate being taken from personal or family time to perform mind-dulling document reviews, or the anger among junior partners trying to maneuver the compensation and power game without turning irate senior partners against them.  And senior partners are angry because, having jumped through all the hoops and put in their time, they are watching as the promised fruits evaporate before them.  What can erupt is a conflagration of anger that can blow up the firm.  Which is also on the rise.

Responding to Emotions

So how do we handle the emotions of these times?  The massive changes in the financial climate and the likelihood of similarly massive changes in individual firms’ fortunes have confronted some law firms and law departments with the same grieving process that individuals go through after a death or other personal tragedy.  Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the pioneer in grief theory, posited five sequential stages:  denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, which are commonly referred to as the “grief cycle”.   Only by getting to acceptance–finally realizing and accepting that many of our dreams and aspirations are no longer part of the current reality–are we able to move on to the possibilities that remain, and how best to achieve them.

Our advice to firms caught in this emotionally spiraling time is to create a climate that allows your lawyers to experience their feelings and individually arrive at the best method to cope with them.  Allow the community to grieve–to deny, be angry, bargain and be depressed.  Before acceptance, these stages must be navigated.  For their part, management can regularly hold firm meetings that recognize the fear and anger and lost dreams, but that also point out the realistic dimensions of the situation.  More, not less, information on the state of firm finances and what the firm intends to do, and specifically how each lawyer can help, can bring the firm together.  Even honestly reporting that a strategy is still being decided on is better than deferring to the rumor mills.

Maintaining and even expanding measures that bring cohesion to the firm and reinforce its culture is also critical.  More than one exiting Heller Ehrman lawyer said they would have stayed even with reduced compensation and prospects if the firm had held true to its culture, the culture that they had initially embraced and repeatedly committed to.  The reason for staying with that particular firm, regardless of its financial condition, evaporated when it lost its defining culture.