Resources Newsletter Archive Issue 28, August 2003

Issue 28, August 2003

  • Is Thinking "Like a Lawyer" Holding You Back?

Making The Hours of Your Life Worth MoreTM




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Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., Editor: Ellen is the founder of™ Personal and Career Coaching for Lawyers Determined to Achieve Professional Success AND a Fulfilling Life.


Most attorneys -- especially women -- live impossibly busy lives. Finding a balance between work and life without sacrificing professional success, deciding on the best practice area or work setting, and making career transitions can be a daunting task, even for the most gifted and accomplished lawyer.

Just as every person deserves the best possible legal counsel, every attorney deserves professional, dedicated support in accomplishing her most important goals. You know how hard you've worked to get where you are -- you serve others, both personally and professionally. You've earned the right to both career success and a fulfilling life.

This newsletter is intended to help you create a satisfying life -- within, or outside of -- legal practice.


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'Reality' is frequently used as an excuse for not
exploring a wide range of options to reach goals.

Linda Austin, M.D.
What's Holding You Back?

Everything can be taken from a man or a woman
but one thing: the last of human freedoms - to
choose one's attitude in any given set of
circumstances, to choose one's own way.

Victor Frankl
Man's Search for Meaning

If you've had a rough time deposing a witness and the partner with whom you're working was harshly critical, are you likely to think, "I'm just not cut out for this; I can't see how I'm ever going to be a successful litigator."?

Sitting around the conference table, do you sometimes stifle your comments, thinking, "If I say something wrong, they'll think I'm stupid. Besides, they'll never listen to me anyway." ?

Have you wanted to reduce your hours but decided not to risk it, thinking "They'll think I'm not really committed. This will ruin my career." ?

If you find yourself thinking like this, then odds are you're an excellent attorney. These "pessimistic" ways of thinking are just what's called for when your job is risk management. In fact, law may be the only profession in which pessimism is rewarded. Pessimistic law students outperform their more optimistic peers, both in terms of grades and law journal success. [1]

"Pessimism" here means a tendency to view negative events as pervasive, permanent and uncontrollable. In the face of adversity, the pessimist thinks, "It's going to last forever; it's going to undermine everything; it's all my fault." A realistic optimist would look for ways to view the same situation as temporary and changeable. Unless the event and its consequences were entirely out of the optimist's control, she would be likely to focus on ways she can overcome it and bounce back.

Your prudent perspective is necessary in your role as risk manager. In law, you need to anticipate every potential disaster in any litigation or transaction. A good lawyer anticipates problems and reduces risks. Caution is essential.

Limiting your pessimistic thinking to your legal work is fine; in fact it's an advantage.

Unfortunately, many lawyers bring this same perspective to other aspects of their careers and their lives.


The worst thing about a pessimistic outlook is that it makes you feel helpless and powerless. Unable to see realistic options and perceiving obstacles to be unchangeable, it's easy to abandon all hope of succeeding and to give up.

Jill, an attorney looking to change jobs, found herself with three very different offers. She could join the well-established practice of a large, international firm; transition to a more recently formed firm committed to growing her practice area; or accept a position in the legal department of a dynamic and profitable corporation.

As pleased as she was to have these offers, Jill felt unable to decide among them. All she could see was what she stood to lose: she might not get sufficient support in a traditional large firm environment. What if the newer firm wasn't successful, or failed to devote resources to her practice area? The in-house position looked very secure, but she feared that it would prevent her from every returning to private practice.

Jill's focus on potential losses had her paralyzed: she felt unable to decide. As her coach, I advised her to make a list of what she stood to gain by choosing each of her options. Doing this completely shifted her response to her situation. Not only was she able to see the advantages of each option, but she also began to consider how she might thrive in one of those situations. She was able to envision a path where she could form both internal and external alliances that would help her grow her practice, even if the newer firm provided fewer resources than it had promised. She began to see the difficulties she might encounter as solvable problems rather than as insurmountable obstacles. She accepted the position at the new firm and hit the ground running.


Karl had been a partner in a 900-attorney firm for eight years. When we began our coaching work, he was discouraged about the state of his practice. He loved working with clients on strategic planning issues, but consistently found himself without enough associates to help him with day-to-day matters. His work life was consumed with putting out fires, and there never seemed to be enough time to address the long-term planning that was the source of satisfaction in his work.

In one of our coaching sessions, we discussed his problem with associates. Recently he'd felt very disappointed with two very promising associates. Given their track record at their former firms, Karl had expected them to be able to handle many of the matters that he wanted to delegate. He'd given each of them an assignment and had been shocked and disillusioned by what these associates had produced. The work was filled with errors and poor writing. Karl concluded that associates these days don't share his work ethic and that he would just have to do the work himself.

Karl's pessimistic thinking was making him blind to a number of alternatives. He explained the associates' disappointing performance as due to permanent and pervasive causes. What else was there to do except to abandon his hope for help and plod on doing work that he found neither engaging nor meaningful?

I asked Karl to try to come up with some possible explanations for his associates' work that were more time-limited and specific to the situation.

He considered the possibility that being new to the firm and the project, their performance might not yet be up to par. Perhaps he hadn't given them sufficient background to understand the "big-picture" issues. Maybe he'd failed to clarify that he wanted a polished product and not a cursory first draft. Could it be that these lawyers had other strengths and expertise and were less sophisticated about the particular issue he'd assigned them first?

If any of these were the case, then what could he do? He could discuss the work with them and listen to their perspective. This might clarify their training needs. Maybe they just needed him to coach them a bit - to show them what he had in mind, ask them what they'd need in order to reach that criterion and suggest ways in which they could fill in the gaps in their skills and experience. Of course this would take some time - but compared to the time it would take him to go on indefinitely doing everything himself, it seemed like a small sacrifice.

Karl and I also discussed what might have happened had this situation occurred at associate evaluation time. He recognized that he would have taken one bad experience with these young attorneys and generalized that to "always" and "everything" conclusions about their potential. And since initial negative evaluations tend to bias the perceptions of other partners, these young lawyers' careers at the firm might be compromised regardless of the quality of work they did in the future.

Karl decided to follow up on some of the options he'd considered and was delighted with the results. Over time, both associates demonstrated the motivation, initiative and skill which provided Karl with the freedom to focus on the work he loved. And he was deeply relieved that he hadn't shared his initial conclusions on a written evaluation which might have deprived both the firm and these talented attorneys of a bright future together.


There are many reasons for the well-documented gender disparity in leadership in the legal profession. Inflexible workplace structures, gender stereotypes, and inadequate access to informal networks and mentors certainly present women lawyers with a "glass ceiling."

But the belief in this glass ceiling can in itself lead to pessimism. Women lawyers can too easily conclude that they'll never be able to advance to positions of power and influence - and give up trying. And if women are to achieve full parity in the profession, it is essential that they focus more on the things they can control, than on those they can't

If the "glass ceiling" is the only "reality" you can see, are you likely to take the kinds of risks necessary to to reach positions of leadership?

A pessimistic cognitive bias can make you so focused on the risks in a situation, you are likely to be blinded to the opportunities. You are also more likely to overestimate the risks.

Many of the women lawyers with whom I work express fears of job loss if they don't "fly under the radar." They feel certain that asking to be spoken to respectfully or persistently pursuing the kind of work that interests them will result in career suicide. There may be some justification for these concerns, but how likely are these catastrophic outcomes?

Try writing down all the worst-case scenarios. How likely is each to occur? Write out the evidence you have about the unlikelihood of these catastrophes. Now write out the most likely outcomes and some possible ways you might cope with each.

Unless you challenge your fears by evaluating the probability that they'll actually occur - and the evidence that they probably won't - you're bound to see many steps to leadership as too risky to try.

Women like Mary Cranston, Chair of Pillsbury Winthrop; Christine Lagarde, Managing Partner of Baker & McKenzie; Regina Pisa, Managing Partner of Goodwin & Procter and Marina Park, Managing Partner of Pillsbury Winthrop are living proof that the glass ceiling has cracks. Don't let "reality" blind you to your options and opportunities.


Psychological research indicates that a pessimistic cognitive bias makes you vulnerable to feelings of helplessness and depression. In fact, the risk of depression is two to eight times greater for pessimists than for optimists. [2]

Thinking "like a lawyer" may have something to do with the finding that lawyers have the highest rates of depression of 101 professional groups measured, and rates that are three times greater than that of the general population.

Pessimism appears to compromise the immune system - optimists have been shown to have better-functioning immune systems and better health overall. Pessimists are significantly more likely to have a second heart attack than are their more optimistic counterparts.

In fact, optimists generally live 8-9 years longer than do pessimists. That means that a pessimistic cognitive style shortens life span even more than does cigarette smoking.


Besides reducing the risks of depression, physical illness, and early death, optimism has other benefits of immediate relevance for attorneys.

Research indicates that an optimistic cognitive bias is also associated with sales success. A pessimistic salesperson views a rejection or failure to make a sale as evidence that she's lousy at sales and won't be successful. In contrast, an optimistic salesman chalks up the failure to a bad day, not making the right pitch to this particular client or having selected the wrong prospect. Psychologist Martin Seligman found that sales agents who scored in the top 10% for optimism sold 88% more than those in the most pessimistic 10%.

The implications for your business development goals are obvious.

The greatest advantage conferred by optimism is resilience. Optimists bounce back better from adversity and try harder when the going gets tough. Optimistic Olympic swimmers improve their speed after losing a race; optimistic NBA teams win the next game after a defeat; and the findings are similar for professional baseball pitchers and hitters.


Certainly you need to maintain your prudent perspective when it comes to your legal work. But it might be helpful to deliberately change your mental state when thinking about things other than the law.

Pay attention to your how you're thinking when you're reacting to being dismissed at a meeting, were not selected in a "beauty contest," had a difficult encounter with someone to whom you report, or someone who reports to you. Examine your thoughts for permanent (always) and pervasive (everything) assumptions when you're given a work assignment as you're headed out of the office for your child's soccer game or when your spouse or partner forgets to run a promised errand.

Work at developing more optimistic explanations. Challenge your knee-jerk thought that this person " always" behaves this way and that "everything" will be ruined.


It's important to be realistic. In fact, research indicates that optimists are better able to detect when a situation is truly beyond repair and out of their control. Under these circumstances, an optimist will re-channel her energies into a situation more easily affected by her efforts.

As a lawyer, you're well trained to test the reality of the alternatives you're generating. Marshal all the evidence for and against all the explanations you've considered - both the pessimistic and the optimistic ones. Examine the facts indicating that the dire outcomes that you are anticipating are unlikely to materialize. The more likely results may still seem risky - but far less than the catastrophes you'd initially imagined.

Resilient people do everything they can to achieve their goals. They take control where they can, recognizing that not everything is within their control. And they know that unless they're entirely satisfied with the current situation, calculated risk-taking is absolutely necessary.


  • 1. Seligman, Martin E. P. Why Lawyers Are Unhappy. Cardozo Law Journal, 23, 33.
  • 2. For information about original research see Seligman, Martin E. P. (2002) Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press and Reivich, Karen & Shatte', Andrew (2002) The Resilience Factor: 7 Essential Skills for Overcoming Life's Inevitable Obstacles. New York: Broadway Books.

BEYOND THE BILLABLE HOUR™ is published monthly by Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., founder of She brings 20 years of experience assisting women attorneys to her work in Lawyers Life Coach™. is a professional and personal coaching firm specializing in working virtually (by phone with email and fax backup) with women attorneys interested in developing strategies to find greater satisfaction in their careers within the law or in exploring career alternatives for lawyers.

Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D. established to coach busy lawyers who might benefit from the insights gained from 20 years as a psychologist combined with her experience and familiarity with the legal profession.

Ellen holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Rochester and is a managing member of Metropolitan Behavioral Health Care, LLC., a multispecialty, multidisciplinary psychotherapy practice in Washington, D.C. and suburban Maryland.

She is a member of the International Coach Federation and a graduate of the MentorCoach Program™.

NOTE: BEYOND THE BILLABLE HOUR™ is intended for informational and educational purposes only. It is not a substitute for a personal consultation with a mental health professional and should not be construed as a form of, or substitute for, counseling, psychotherapy, or other psychological service.


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Issue # 28
Is Thinking "Like a Lawyer" Holding You Back?


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