In the first episode of our new podcast series, In Discovery: The Podcast, we chat with Heidi K. Brown, Director of Legal Writing at Brooklyn Law School, and the author of several books, including The Introverted Lawyer: A Seven-Step Journey Toward Authentically Empowered Advocacy and Untangling Fear in Lawyering: A Four-Step Journey Toward Powerful Advocacy.
In this conversation, Heidi shares how fear can hold members of the legal profession back, how you can begin to “untangle” your own fears, and how getting in the boxing ring helped her master the more performative aspects of her own practice.
Can we hear a little about your own story?
Heidi: When I was in law school, I was never the student with my hand in the air waving to get attention from the professor.
I loved the research and writing aspects of law school, but the performance aspects really gave me some trouble. But I thought, “Oh, you know, I'm just going to keep putting myself in those scenarios and hoping that I'll just get better at it. But I continued to have performance anxiety all throughout law school. The job that I got right out of law school was at a really intense, aggressive litigation firm that happened to be in the construction industry. So, not only was it stressful litigation, but it was also in a very high-pressure industry. And again, I loved the research and writing aspects of my job, but within the performance scenarios like depositions, going to court and negotiating, I still experienced a ton of anxiety and fear. I just thought there was something wrong with me that I just needed to toughen up.
So I just kept pushing myself into those scenarios for literally 15 years. I was just sort of trying to adopt the mantras we hear about like,“fake it until you make it.” But nothing was working.
Then, when I transitioned into teaching, I saw that many of my most amazing students, my great writers, my most creative problem-solvers also had performance anxiety. That's what really prompted me to start researching this. So I could really understand, first of all, what was happening to me as a law student, as a lawyer, and then as a teacher: Why was I still experiencing this anxiety? But I needed to understand myself first. Then, I could break it down into really some fundamental techniques and steps that could help my students who were struggling with the same thing. So that's what led me to research it, working on myself, and then writing the two books.
What about the legal profession makes the skill of entangling and confronting fear so necessary? Why do you think that this is so relevant specifically for lawyers?
Heidi: Our profession has sort of a bravado mentality. [We’re expected to] never show weakness. Our system is designed to have "winners" and "not winners." And so, there's this emphasis on being tough, being strong, always having to have the right answer, and never making mistakes. But in reality, we're human and the law is really based on human nature and human behavior. So lawyers have to constantly fake this bravado, when, in reality, we're always dealing with levels of emotion, with stress, with anxiety.
I feel really strongly that it's important for us to be more authentic in how we talk about emotions, our anxiety, things like depression and stress—so that we can be stronger. I like to analogize it to athletes or other types of performers because when we see athletes or other performers who are grappling with mental health issues or emotional health issues or physical issues, they get help. Coaches, trainers, and the general public don't look down on them for seeking that help, because that's going to make them a better performer.
But I feel like sometimes in the legal profession, we do look down on these issues as perceived weaknesses, when, in reality, they're just part of life. I really want our profession or our legal communities to be able to talk more openly and authentically, and be really vulnerable about sharing these ideas and topics. Then, we can all work on it together and perform at our peak instead of “grappling with it.”
You actually shared recently that even after all these years of litigation experience, your time as a law professor, and all that you've done on the topic, you still experience fear before public speaking, even from the comfort of your own living room. You also mentioned that boxing helps. Can you tell us about that?
Heidi: I've been working from home and I still do a lot of speaking, meetings, zoom conferences, podcasts, and presentations. And I found I was having the same physical manifestations of performance anxiety that I have when I walk into a room of 500 people. And I couldn't believe this was happening on my couch. So I started really digging into that. “Why am I experiencing the same feelings of alive in-person performance when I'm in the comfort of my house, alone, sweat pants? I should be incredibly comfortable.”
For me, a huge part of this whole study of myself is understanding not only my mental soundtrack, about my performance, which takes a lot of reframing for me to acknowledge that I can do this. And I absolutely am prepared can even be pretty good at it at times.
But the physical aspects of my performance anxiety are huge. So doing a lot of this work, I realized that my body just instinctively does things when I'm nervous that aren't so helpful. It thinks that it's protecting me against a perceived threat. So my body automatically tries to get small and I cave my shoulders in, I crossed my limbs that causes my heart to beat really fast. And I sweat a lot. And I write in my books that I have also have a really robust blushing response.
So, one thing that has really helped me was to exercise in general. But, about two and a half years ago, I started taking boxing lessons.
And the first time I walked into this very authentic boxing gym I have to admit, I was kind of terrified because I was one of the very few women in the room. And I, I felt like I was gonna not be good at it, but what really taught me through working one-on-one with a really excellent Olympic boxing trainer, was that I can do this. And it's about really learning a totally new skill. I realized it doesn't matter that my face is beat red or I'm sweating a lot. I'm strong. I can get through literally 12 rounds of three minutes. (I'm breathing very hard and but I'm not getting hit in the face or anything like that—it's more skills training, footwork, breathing a lot of mind-body connection through the different punches and combinations.)
And it's teaching me a whole different way of approaching performance. And it's just made me realize that if I can get through a 60-minute boxing training session, I can get through any conversation I'm having about the law. And it's just retaught me a lot about myself and my strength. I'm a strong fighter, and I can do anything that I put my mind to.
So boxing has really re-framed my relationship with my fear. I still do get nervous as I share in all of my writing. I get nervous anytime I'm about to do any performance, but now I just use the boxing to remind myself, okay, you just got to treat yourself like an athlete step into the ring.
In your book, you outline four steps for helping lawyers look differently at fear and practice with more fortitude and resilience. Can you walk us through what those steps look like?
Heidi: As I mentioned, for years, I had been listening to all the slogans like"fake it till you make it,” or “just do it.” But none of that was helping me to get rid of my fear, or even deal with my fear.
So I started thinking about a better way, at least for me. And I like the concept of “untangling” because it's not just saying things like, “Fear is good for you,” or, “Just ignore the fear and do it anyway.” Instead, it's “Let’s untangle the fear. Let's be really vulnerable and open to do this.”
You sit with your fear, write things down about it, get to know it really well. Do a physical survey. Like I mentioned I know really well now what happens to my physical body. So the concept of untangling is being willing to get really specific about our fear. So then we can take it apart, understand maybe some good motivating factors that come out of it, but let go of all the destructive aspects of fear. So that led me to create a really a four-step process that has worked for me.
>> On comparative fearlessness
Heidi: So the first step, I like to call “comparative fearlessness” because all of us have some aspect of our personal lives in which we are the strongest person in the room. We just, we have the experience. We have the bravado, we have the swagger, but we forget about all that sometimes in the legal profession. And when we step into a legal scenario, the fear comes rushing over us, and we get overwhelmed. But I like to recommend that we think about aspects of our lives in which society tells us that we probably should be afraid, but we're not. And then compare that against legal scenarios in our lawyering personas in which society tells us, “Hey, you shouldn't be afraid. This is your job. This is what you signed up for,” but we are. And then try and discern what the differences are. And, for me, that comes down to a fear of judgment or fear of criticism. That sort of leads to step two, where we have to think about why we're afraid of the judgment or criticism.
>> On the mental + physical “reboot”
Heidi: The second step is a “mental reboot.” For me, the mental and the physical go really hand-in-hand. Step two is the “mental” and step three the “physical.”
And in terms of the mental, it's important to, again, untangle what we're telling ourselves in anticipation of a stressful scenario. And this is not the most pleasant step because the things that a lot of us tell ourselves about our abilities are really not that nice. If you sit down and transcribe the language that we hear in our minds or our brains in anticipation of some of these scenarios, it's really awful. And it's time for us to let that go because when we do, we realize, “Oh my gosh, you know, I've been telling myself these really not true things about my abilities for many years.” And, and it's important to reflect back on where you might have first heard that and, and think, “Okay, well maybe this came from perhaps a well-meaning teacher or a coach or some person in our formative years.” But then we either interpreted that message or misinterpreted that as something negative about our ability. Now, we replay it over and over again.
Step two is really about listening to what we're telling ourselves, and then realizing that those messages are now outdated and have nothing to do with our current persona as a lawyer. So it's time to reframe our approach and our messaging to ourselves in a positive way. We've done the work we've put in the hours. We're prepared for this. We have something to say, we're entitled to say an, our voice. It doesn't have to go perfectly. If we reach one person we've done our job.
Step three is easier than step two. And that's the physical inventory. I alluded to this earlier, but it's really taking a step back and looking at what happens naturally to your physical body when you experience a fear moment. And for me, I mentioned, I cave in my shoulders. This is all automatic. I don't even realize it's happening to me, but my body is instinctively trying to get small, but all that's doing is blocking my energy and blood and oxygen flow. So boxing has really helped because I know I have to stand like an athlete.
Anytime I'm getting ready to go do a presentation or even speaking on a phone call, I know I have to stand up and stand like an athlete, or stand like a superhero. There's a great TED Talk by Professor Amy Cuddy about power poses. And, really, step three is all about understanding what your body does that maybe isn't so helpful to you, and then recalibrating your physical stance so that you can step into the performance scenario with fortitude.
>> Cultivating a culture around fortitude
Heidi: The fourth step is really about cultivating a culture around fortitude. That means really opening up dialogues in our profession about these issues—the details, our mental soundtracks, the physical ramifications; being really open about our fears, and the different ways that fear impacts us as individuals. We can talk more openly about mistake-making and how we can, together as a community and a profession, help improve each other’s mental and physical health and well-being, by talking openly about these issues.