Skill Sets # 6: Law, Preparation and Anxiety
“But I know this, a man can’t worry and hit home runs”. Jane Leavy, The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created.
Events at home and around the world have of course confirmed (assuming there was any doubt) that we all experience varying degrees of apprehension and anxiety at work and at home.
Even in “normal” times, lawyers will experience work related apprehension and anxiety at one stage or another in the course of their careers. Younger lawyers are particularly susceptible. Thankfully, the very powerful stigma that has attached to anxiety in the legal community has dissipated. Lawyers are, with the assistance of education and communication, enabled to reach out more freely to colleagues and professionals for comfort and assistance. They feel increasingly empowered to openly address their health and well-being, and this is a good thing.
Science teaches us that a level of anxiety is essential, allowing us to be aware of, and to avoid danger. Science refers to anxiety for this reason in admiring terms as our “natural fight-or-flight response”, a defence mechanism. Understanding the role of anxiety at an intellectual level is fine. Managing it day to day, in real time, is where the problem lies.
It is important to appreciate that many of our younger and less experienced colleagues experience anxiety daily, in the form of either worry, a sense of unease, doubt and disquiet, foreboding and trepidation, or merely concern. Many agonize over or in relation to being anxious. In this way anxiety can feed on itself and multiply symptoms and effect. “Worry in the dark can make it even darker” (Camron Wright). By recognizing that this is prevalent in the day to day of our offices, we can assist.
Anxiety is a blocker. Where present, it rises up and gets in the way of normative evaluation and action. At the extreme end, it can finish or substantially interfere with a career. At the less extreme end, it can make the practice of law more difficult than it needs to be, and less enjoyable than it ought to be.
Lawyers carry the worry and troubles of their clients in their pockets, held there by an over-arching desire to succeed. There is no “cure” for anxiety writ large. But curing anxiety is not the issue. Controlling it, and the resulting stress and debilitation, is.
How then to assist our colleagues to deal with anxiety, and the resulting stress, in their work day to day? One important way, is to emphasize the importance to them of the quietening effect of preparation and hard work.
“Nothing diminishes anxiety faster than action.” (Walter Anderson).
It may seem trite, but it is important for younger lawyers to learn early and to long remember that there is no substitute for preparation. In many walks of life preparation is the key to success, and the practice of law is no different. Commentators agree that the better prepared one is, and the more comfortable one is, the less anxious one is. The less anxious one is, the better one performs. In short, Preparation = Performance.
Here then are some guidelines to effective preparation for younger lawyers regardless of practice area:
Face up to the task. Prepare a taxonomy, a road map of your objectives and motivations. If it suits you, sketch this out. Take due care to comprehensively appreciate the component issues and problems. Prepare issue summaries. Read the product of your organization out loud, this will assist you in hearing (understanding) the gaps, and recognizing the questions and inconsistencies for which you yet require answers. And all the while, breathe. “Present fears are less than horrible imaginings.” (William Shakespeare)
Take your time. Find a restful place at which to work. Develop work habits and workplaces that become comforting and faithful, that deliver what you need to work serenely and well. I regularly have several books on the go at one time. I leave them, and therefore read them, in different locations at home or at the office. This is agreeable to both recollection and to relaxation. “Your mind will answer most questions if you learn to relax and wait for the answer.” (William S. Burroughs)
Draw connections and relationships between relevant facts and issues. Create a chronology. Use demonstrative techniques – drawings, graphs and the like. Learning is usefully distracting, what you learn emphatically rewarding, and once you have learned what you need to learn, inspiring. Know and be comforted by the underlying story. Put things into context. Context is the key to comprehension and delivery. I believe strongly that it is virtually impossible for younger lawyers to over prepare. This is one of the first things we tell our new colleagues, that no criticism is earned by knowing too much. There is a good line attributed to Abraham Lincoln – “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
Where research is required, research with care. Use all available tools, cut no corners. Think. Apply your training and your analytical skills. William James is credited for having stated that “the greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” Use what you have to effect. Embrace the facts, good or bad, equally, rather than be fooled by the good, and repelled by the bad. “Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.” (Theodore Roosevelt)
Too many years ago a senior member of the Bar, a true leader, told me that the key to preparation is to “just step back”. At some point he said, it is important to get up from where and what you are working at, walk to a window, stop and simply look out and reflect. I was reminded of this when I read this quotation attributed to Bernard Paul-Heroux: “There is no trouble so great or grave that cannot be much diminished by a nice cup of tea.” I don’t drink tea, but I know it has to steep.
What my colleague was referring to is the art of visualization. All preparation, for all things, requires some form of visualization. Not too long ago we were privileged to spend the day with the great Alan Lenczner. One of the points he stressed was the importance of visualization. He has his own routine as to when, as above, he would metaphorically or otherwise, look out the window and see how things were going to go.
Remember, seeing is believing.