Reaching out can feel like a risk, especially for lawyers. Here’s how to start building your own circle of support.
Whether you’re looking for guidance on case law, a sounding board after a stressful day, or the location of the conference room, something about asking for help can feel uncomfortable for anyone—especially for lawyers. Despite having entered a ‘helping’ profession, one that exists to serve the (highly technical) needs of others, we’re incredibly resistant to seeking out practical and emotional support.
“We tend to feel like we should have all the answers already,” explains Theresa, an intellectual property associate based in Los Angeles. “And being a new associate can be particularly hard because it’s easy to feel like you’re the only one struggling to find your way.”
What’s so challenging about reaching out?
Of course, no one knows everything. So it would make sense that most people will need to ask for support and assistance at some point. Despite this, human beings - even lawyers - turn out to be remarkably resistant to logic when assessing their own perceived shortcomings. This means you’re likely over-estimating others’ competence while undervaluing your own. In the extreme, the same perfectionism that keeps you combing through footnotes for punctuation errors can curdle into what psychologists call a ‘fixed mindset’ - an assumption that key characteristics, such as intelligence or goodness, are immutable and beyond our influence. For those under the influence of a fixed mindset, reaching out for support looks and feels an awful lot like admitting to a fundamental flaw. A big, neon sign reading, “Not Good Enough.”
But even lawyers with a more measured view of their strengths and weaknesses can struggle. Like many specialized professions, there’s can be a tendency to feel a sense of isolation when dealing with the day-to-day realities of the profession. Jeff, an in-house attorney in Asia, has a lively social life and a happy relationship but struggles sometimes to explain the specific stresses of his job to ‘civilians’. “What we do now is so specialized that it is hard to explain the problems we face to others who aren’t familiar with the unique problems associated with our specialty.” Echoes another young lawyer in New York, “Unless you’ve actually worked in a law firm, you just don’t get the way they operate. The hours and the culture are just so different, even from other demanding professions. Most of the standard advice doesn’t apply.”
Reach out anyway
As we navigate the transition to a ‘new normal’ - one where teleworking, social distancing and other forms necessary isolation conspire to keep us deeper within our silos - it’s easy to fall victim to false beliefs. That you’re the only one struggling to adapt to remote working, for example. Or that because you’re lucky enough to have something someone else badly wants - a start date, an interview or a solid internet connection - that you don’t have the right to speak up about challenges you may be experiencing. But there’s a strong chance that there are other people within your reach that are working through the same challenges. There’s also evidence that seeking support and talking about where you’re struggling can only help.
How to build your support network
There are likely times when connecting—or reconnecting—can feel like the biggest challenge of all, but this is the first step in building stronger support networks for yourself and others. And, as tempting as it may be to connect with other lawyers, research suggests that those with different life experiences may have more to offer when you’re looking to shift your outlook. True, someone outside the practice of law may not understand the unique pressure of the billable hour, but he or she also probably has some valuable perspective on the question of whether missing an internal email spells the end of your career. Likewise, voicing your fears and concerns to someone entirely disconnected from your profession can significantly reduce the anxiety associated with disclosing vulnerable feelings.
So, consider while you may look to colleagues or fellow lawyers for moments of connection, make sure to also reach out to that old college classmate with whom you kept meaning to grab a drink, or the boot camp class buddy who sends hilarious texts. Rekindling or deepening existing relationships allows you to benefit from shared history and rapport without feeling unnecessarily exposed.
Don’t feel compelled to beat around the bush, either, when contacting someone. Acknowledging that we’re all under a lot of stress and speaking honestly about a desire for connection goes a long way towards building bridges. You can send a quick message to get the conversation going:
Some people will respond with an enthusiastic, “Sure!” Others might need a few days. Remember that we’re all dealing with multiple challenges right now, and an unread email—or text—doesn’t reflect on you or your bid for interaction. It just means the person on the other end probably has his or her own mountain of email to scale or toddler to feed as well.
In the meantime, consider reaching out to someone you think might be struggling, or that might just want to hear from you. I'm sure it will be appreciated.