About Us Ellen in the Press Facing Defeat

Facing Defeat

New York Law Journal Magazine
February 2004
By Wendy Davis

"One reason [that many lawyers are unhappy] is that attorneys, whether by temperament or training, tend to approach situations from the viewpoint of what can go wrong - which might make for good lawyering, but a glum worldview," explains Ellen Ostrow, a personal coach who specializes in lawyers. What's more, people who always see the negative don't bounce back as quickly as optimists.

One starting point [for bouncing back from losing a trial] is for attorneys to ask themselves what did go wrong in the case...With lawyers, says Ms. Ostrow, "these reasons take the form of: 'I'm a terrible lawyer,' or 'I'm just incompetent.' "  But these rationales can only lead to despair: "If you're incompetent, there's nothing you can do about it," she says.

In her role as coach, Ms. Ostrow suggests attorneys evaluate all possible reasons for defeat. Once they do so, she says, they tend to see that the evidence usually supports a more temporary reason, such as the facts of the case were particularly bad or that the lawyer had the flu, than a pervasive explanation. "Fundamentally, there is no one reason for everything, so you're not trying to get people to con themselves."

Another thing that makes it harder for lawyers to recover after losing a case is engaging in "catastrophic thinking," which involves imagining worst-case scenarios, such as: "word will get out and all my clients will fire me;" or "I can't ever show my face in the courtroom again," says Ms. Ostrow. When lawyers start this type of fantasizing, Ms. Ostrow talks them down by telling them to imagine the best-case scenario. Attorneys then usually see that their best- and worst-case scenarios are "equally ludicrous" and prepare for the most likely scenario.

Finally, says Ms. Ostrow, "lawyers should learn to live with imperfection. This doesn't mean lowering your standards", she says. But it means banishing punitive thoughts - which goes against the grain for many attorneys. Even if they weren't perfectionists before becoming lawyers, the profession encourages an almost overwhelming obsessiveness. Associates in law firms, she says, "are encouraged to believe if there's a typo in a memo that's going to be the end of the world." This type of thinking, says Ms. Ostrow, "makes it harder to recover from setbacks. You have to cut yourself some slack," she says. "There aren't any perfect people."


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