Washington Lawyer

Learning to Be an Elastic Lawyer

From Washington Lawyer, April 2016

By Tim Webster

Tim WebsterIt took over 20 years of practice for me to realize that the most important skill a lawyer can have is not analytical acumen, oral advocacy, or legal writing, but rather resiliency. The ability to stretch without giving, to bounce back. I used the word "skill" rather than "trait" to connote something learned rather than something hardwired, although certainly some lawyers have personality traits that are more conducive to resiliency than others.

Resiliency is critical because law is a tough profession. Multiple studies evidence that lawyers as a group have rates of depression, substance abuse, and even suicide far above national averages. Causation is difficult to pin down and probably varies from lawyer to lawyer. But the sheer number of stress-triggers in our profession is impossible to miss. From the always-on, always-connected nature of modern legal practice to significant business and client pressures to unrelenting court and other external deadlines, we face a lot of slings and arrows every day. Perhaps dissatisfaction with the profession, as much as the economy, is to blame for the drastic dip in first-year law school enrollment last fall to the smallest number since 1973.

Resiliency is not a panacea, but elasticity provides benefits across a spectrum of activities. Recognizing that resiliency is not exclusively innate and can be learned is the linchpin to becoming more resilient. Resiliency training has worked for the U.S. Army, so why not the legal profession?

The U.S. Army? Isn't resiliency training a little touchy-feely for an organization whose motto is "Army Strong?" The Army instituted a Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness program "designed to build resilience and enhance performance of the Army Family—Soldiers, their Families, and Army Civilians."[1] The idea, in part, was to address some of the systemic issues facing troops in light of difficult deployments before they manifested as mental health or substance abuse problems. Since 2009, the University of Pennsylvania's Penn Resilience Program has trained more than 30,000 Army Master Resilience Trainers, who themselves serve to train others. Much of the U.S. Army has now had such training.

The developers of the Master Resilience Training describe it as having four modules with the goal of fostering what they describe as the essence of resiliency:

(a) self-awareness—identifying one's thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, and patterns in each that are counterproductive;(b) self-regulation—the ability to regulate impulses, thinking, emotions, and behaviors to achieve goals, as well as the willingness and ability to express emotions;(c) optimism—noticing the goodness in self and others, identifying what is controllable, remaining wedded to reality, and challenging counterproductive beliefs;(d) mental agility—thinking flexibly and accurately, perspective taking, and willingness to try new strategies;(e) character strengths—identifying the top strengths in oneself and others, relying on one's strengths to overcome challenges and meet goals, and cultivating a strength approach in one's unit;and (f) connection—building strong relationships through positive and effective communication, empathy, willingness to ask for help, and willingness to offer help.[2]

The training draws from principles of cognitive behavioral therapy to teach techniques for identifying and avoiding counterproductive thought processes and developing core competencies—including my personal favorite—minimizing catastrophic thinking. Catastrophizing is well known to all of us who carry the worry gene: it's the lightening-quick mental process of spinning minor problems into epic disasters. The rest of the program focuses on identifying character strengths and strengthening relationships between soldiers and their families.

Surprisingly, perhaps, resiliency training works. Four years into the program, a study showed that the trained group had significantly fewer occurrences of mental health and substance abuse problems than a control group that did not receive training. Again, causation is tough to pin down. The researchers surmise that the benefits of resiliency training are indirect rather than direct. Nonetheless, the bottom line is plain as black and white.

I don't know of any law firm, government agency, or other body of lawyers that provides resiliency training to its lawyers, although certainly many employers have adopted various health and wellness programs and provide in-house and outside mental health and substance abuse resources when needed. The Army's Master Resilience Training is a 10-day course. I'd be catastrophizing if I had to spend that much time on any training! But that's training for the trainers, not the subjects. Given the existing data comparing our profession with others, it seems that we ought to think more seriously about enhancing lawyer resiliency.

Sometimes, though, resiliency is not enough, and it's good to have a backstop. The D.C. Bar has one, the Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP). It was established as a Bar program in the 1980s, partly in recognition of the connection between mental health and substance abuse and malpractice and ethical violations. LAP's counselors, who are licensed clinical social workers, offer comprehensive assessments, short-term counseling sessions, and referral services for D.C. Bar members, judges serving on D.C. courts, and D.C. law students. For more information, visit www.dcbar.org, keyword: LAP.

Reach Tim Webster at [email protected]


[1] See http://www.acsim.army.mil/readyarmy/ra_csf.htm.

[2] See Reivich, Seligman, and McBride, "Master Resilience Training in the U.S. Army," American Psychologist (Jan. 2011) at 25.