Resources Newsletter Archive Issue 9, October 2000

Issue 9, October 2000

  • Ten Secrets for Building an Acceptable Level of Confidence


Making The Hours of Your Life Worth More™

Issue # 9
Ten Secrets for Building an Acceptable Level of Confidence


ARTICLE SUMMARY: Lawyers are taught that mistakes are unacceptable in spite of the fact that there are no "perfect" lawyers. But the fear of making mistakes can impede your success by reducing strategic risk-taking, keeping you silent unless you're 100% certain, reducing your visibility and - paradoxically - creating the perception that you lack sufficient self-confidence to be considered for partnership track.

The following ten steps will enable you to determine an acceptable level of risk, make yourself visible even when you're less than 100% certain, and to project the confidence necessary to be recognized as competent, authoritative and successful.



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.


Ten Steps for Building an Acceptable Level of Confidence

"Like it or not, part of being good at a job is making it up as you go along. There will always be times when you won't know it all. And you're not going to convince anyone that you're confident if you look terrified...

None of us has a grasp on all the facts. Think about it. Does any one of us truly know everything there is to know about raising kids? No. But that doesn't stop us from doing it, or from doing it well."

-- Gail Evans, "Play Like a Man -
Win Like a Woman." New York:
Broadway Books, 2000. Pp. 87 & 92.

In the past week, two women attorneys have told me that they were recently criticized by a male partner for having a "confidence problem." One of these women is someone I experience as interpersonally powerful - she's articulate, extremely knowledgeable about her area of practice, and has an excellent and clearly laid out career plan. She was baffled by her partner's feedback.

The second woman, a good public speaker, had never received this kind of feedback before entering private practice. In law school, she'd been an excellent debater, and participated actively in all her classes. She too was baffled to hear that she was perceived as timid.

Deborah Tannen echoes the experience of these women in her book, "Talking from 9 to 5 - Women and Men in the Workplace: Language, Sex and Power" by asking, "How can so many talented women be seen by their senior managers as suffering from a lack of confidence?"

As a professional coach and psychologist, I find it more helpful to think of this issue in terms of what statisticians call the "level of confidence." In social science research, the experimenter is interested in determining whether her treatment had an effect. Even if a treatment appears to be effective in the particular sample of people being tested, can she conclude that the treatment is truly effective?

Scientists know that absolute accuracy is impossible. Instead, they choose a level of confidence - i.e., the probability of being wrong in concluding the treatment is effective. If the experimenter chooses to be very cautious in calculating her required level of confidence, she risks another kind of error - that of failing to detect the effectiveness of the treatment.

Many women lawyers appear to lack confidence because they require too high a level of confidence before holding forth. Often women won't say anything unless they are 100% certain they are correct because:

* They're not used to experiencing temporary setbacks. Partially, this results from not participating in competitive sports, in which loss isn't perceived as catastrophic. Without this experience, women feel like failures when they make a simple mistake.

* The consequences of mistakes are perceived as graver than for those their male counterparts commit. Many women lawyers feel open to harsh criticism, public humiliation, even job loss.

* They feel conspicuous. Women are usually in the minority in their firms, and the number of women partners is woefully small. Feeling as if their behavior is under constant scrutiny, women are particularly concerned about being caught off guard. To reduce their anxiety, they try to know everything before speaking up.

For these and other reasons, many women attorneys avoid the risk of error and require an extremely high level of confidence before going public with ideas.

But this caution exposes you to another risk - that you are perceived as insufficiently confident to be an effective attorney. In other words, you are just as likely to fail if you DON'T take risks.

Before concluding that success is impossible and throwing this newsletter in the circular file, consider the following ten steps for building an acceptable level of confidence. These are strategies that have worked for many women attorneys as well as women in the corporate world breaking through the glass ceiling.

Ten Steps for Building an Acceptable Level of Confidence

1. Recognize that no one knows everything. Regardless of how harshly a partner may criticize your errors, rest assured he's made plenty himself. You can probably remember a few if you try to.

2. Experiment with presenting ideas about which you are less than 100% confident. See what happens when you express something about which you're only 95% confident. Give yourself a chance to learn that you can be successful without being 100% certain.

3. Take realistic, strategic, calculated risks. Study your surroundings for cues about the culture in which you find yourself. Observe how others act and interact. Assess the potential costs of being incorrect in the particular situation. Compare these to the costs of inaction. Remember that most firms have multiple backup systems -- there's almost always someone else reviewing your work. In most cases, it's more likely that you'll be criticized than that a client will be hurt.

4. Have faith in your ability to perform. The success you've achieved thus far is not an accident. You wouldn't be where you are unless you were competent and knowledgeable.

5. Be willing to tolerate discomfort. Taking a risk means stepping outside your comfort zone. People who take risks are not fearless; they're people who have fear under control. If you weren't fearful, you wouldn't be taking a risk.

6. Be willing to learn on the job. Men do this all the time -- and so do successful women. Seek input from people unlikely to evaluate you. Remember, we always learn more from failure than from success.

7. Depersonalize your mistakes and the criticism they receive. Mistakes are a fact of life -- just because you failed at one thing doesn't make you a failure.

When criticized:

* Take appropriate responsibility for your error without
denigrating yourself or absolving others from their
own responsibility.

* Try to keep in mind that your critic's anger is
more likely a reflection of his/her current state
of mind -- feelings of frustration, pressure, being
overwhelmed -- than any enduring judgment of your

* Try to separate the facts you're hearing from your
own feelings about them. You made a mistake -- that's

* Consider all of the temporary and situational
reasons you might have made this error -- don't
attribute failures to your basic ability or

8. Act with confidence even when you're not completely certain.


* Apologize or ask for permission to speak.

* Begin with statements such as "You probably
thought of this before but..." or " I'm sorry to bother
you but..."

* Hesitate, repeat yourself, or embroider your statements.


* Speak in a convincing, unconditional, authoritative manner.

* Be decisive and to the point.

* Make your statements strong and powerful.

* Claim authorship of your ideas by saying, "This is
what I've come up with" or "I did the research
and found..."

* Project your voice.

9. Taking risks builds resilience and self-confidence. The more you stretch yourself and succeed, the more confident you'll feel. Think of risk-taking as a necessary part of your professional training.

10. Remember what you stand to gain from taking a risk:

* Your work will not just be excellent but may also be recognized.

* You'll have the chance to receive credit for your accomplishments.

* You'll increase your visibility and therefore your chances of getting good assignments.

* You'll probably feel more confident than you did before.

Remember what you stand to lose from NOT taking a risk:

* You may be right but no one will know it.

* Your work may go unnoticed or you may not receive credit for it.

* No one will know you're there.

* Perhaps worst of all - you may be accused of not having the "necessary confidence."



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.



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Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D.
Phone: (301) 578-8686
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