Resources Newsletter Archive Issue 7, August 2000

Issue 7, August 2000

  • Be Self-Sufficient and Strong: Whose Rule is this Anyway?

Making The Hours of Your Life Worth More™

Issue # 7
Be Self-Sufficient and Strong: Whose Rule is this Anyway?


ARTICLE SUMMARY: Lawyers are taught to project power and hide weakness. Maintaining an image as strong, self-sufficient, all-knowing and confident isolates lawyers from each other. The adversarial environment of today's law firm leads lawyers to be secretive about the challenges they face and the limits of their knowledge. Overcoming these obstacles and sharing concerns with like-minded others is a far more effective way to achieve both success and satisfaction in the law.



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.


Be Self-Sufficient and Strong: Whose Rule is this Anyway?

"Creative minds have always been known to survive any
kind of bad training."
Anna Freud

I received a large number of emails in reaction to my last newsletter, "Restoring Civility to Law Firm Relationships: Effectively Managing Criticism." The lawyers who responded all expressed the same message - astonishment that other lawyers might have experiences similar to their own.

Upon reflection, it's not really surprising that lawyers know little about the experience of their colleagues. Certainly, this is in part due to the overwhelming time demands of the profession.


I think that beyond time constraints, something far more insidious and endemic to law firm culture isolates lawyers and interferes with success. Beginning in law school, lawyers are taught to always give the impression of being knowledgeable and confident. "For a lawyer to admit ignorance is to admit weakness, and to admit weakness is to open oneself to attack." (1)

Many of the lawyers I coach are concerned about the negative consequences that will ensue if they reveal any vulnerability, insecurity or gaps in their knowledge. They fear that if they ask how to do something, this will be interpreted as a gesture of extreme incompetence. This is especially problematic for younger attorneys confronted with the gap between what they learned in law school and what they need to know to practice law.

Of course, this is a dangerous belief for any lawyer. Ethical practice requires consultation with colleagues. If the fear of exposure of ignorance prevents this, the consequences can be serious for all involved.

In "The Soul of the Law," Benjamin Sells describes what he calls the "cult of individualism" in the legal profession. Lawyers learn that they are expected to be self-sufficient, strong, knowing, aggressive and confident - in short, super-human.

The law values rationality and objectivity. Lawyers are encouraged to put personal feelings aside. Emotional vulnerability is seen as antithetical to the image required for success.

Concerns about openness to attack are intensified by the adversarial atmosphere many lawyers experience in their firms. But the requirement to be cautious, circumspect and secretive closes lawyers in on themselves.

Both men and women lawyers are significantly affected by these norms. For men, they reinforce the cultural expectations of strength and invincibility. For women, the threat of being derided as "over-emotional" can become quite limiting. It undermines self-confidence because it labels normal experiences as inappropriate.

It's no wonder that so many lawyers feel unable to effectively counter harsh criticism. If you believe that you should be "tough enough" to tolerate abuse, then you'll do your best to accept it.

It is also not surprising that many lawyers assume they are the only ones who have difficulty managing harsh criticism. If it's not safe to discuss your professional questions or emotional concerns with your colleagues for fear of exposure and judgment, then you are isolated.


The paradox is that in order to be strong, resilient, self-confident and knowledgeable, you have to be able to seek advice and counsel and to share your experiences with others who share your concerns.

Ongoing sharing with like-minded colleagues makes you a more effective problem-solver. It dramatically increases the likelihood of your professional success because you will be more effective at managing the stress of legal practice.

Realizing that the challenges you face are systemic, and not unique to you, empowers you to focus on your work, maintain your personal standards of excellence, and to work toward changing institutional obstacles to your success.

I suggest that you function as a true individual rather than conform to norms that isolate and impede real success.

-- Find a mentor outside your firm. You need to be
able to ask questions without fear of judgment
and negative consequences for your career.
-- Meet regularly with a group of like-minded lawyers.
Share stories about workplace practices and
brainstorm solutions.

-- Avoid self-blame. There are no super-humans.
The people who appear this way are the real

-- Remember that "emotional intelligence" is essential
for success. The capacity to recognize your own
feelings and those of others is an asset, not a
weakness. You need to regulate how you express
these feelings, but this is very different from
denying your feelings altogether.

1. Sells, Benjamin (1994). "The Soul of the Law: Understanding Lawyers and the Law." Element.


PostScript: offers a special group coaching program for women attorneys seeking the opportunity to share their experiences and develop strategies for career success and satisfaction with like-minded others.

More information about "Success On Your Own Terms for Women Lawyers" is available at Or contact Ellen, either by phone at 1-301-578-8686 or email at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it



The legal field needs to hear your strategies. If you are willing to share them, I'd love to hear from you. You can send e-mail to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Lawyers Life Coach is dedicated to sharing practical strategies that lawyers are already using -- from something as small as hiring a virtual assistant to something as large as leaving the profession.

Of course, I will only share your strategies and any identifying information with your permission.


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.



For a FREE subscription to BEYOND THE BILLABLE HOUR™ sign up at: or send an email to: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it with the word subscribe in the body of the letter.



Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D.
Phone: (301) 578-8686
This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it


© 2000 — 2008 Ellen Ostrow. All rights reserved.

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