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Skill Sets # 9: Resilience

Skill Sets # 9: Resilience


Posted May 20, 2020

I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter/Dancing through the fire   Katy Perry – Roar

Our associates or junior colleagues, in addition to other tools I have been addressing in these posts, require the tool of resilience.


Resilience has been described as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors. As much as resilience involves “bouncing back” from these difficult experiences, it can also involve profound personal growth”.  While some individuals succumb to stress and adversity, others survive and respond well to the challenges associated with life’s hazards”.

We all respond to stress and adversity differently, tuned as we are by both genetic factors and predispositions borne out of our life experiences.  Psychologists explain that “all of us possess the same fundamental stress-response system, which has evolved over millions of years and which we share with other animals. The vast majority of people are pretty good at using that system to deal with stress”. As has been noted, some are better at it then others.

Many challenging things occur in our busy legal practices, and therefore in the life of younger colleagues who hope to join us:

  • Law students apply in a competitive market for summer positions which they hope will morph into articling positions resulting in associate positions. Not everyone gets what they want. Disappointment and stress greet those who are turned away.
  • New associates look for (expect?) advancement, a challenging career and success; all of which are circumstantial, and none of which are defined let alone guaranteed.
  • Senior associates in particular still aspire to partnership or equivalent sinecure, where success ironically does not temper resilience but makes it a full time job.
  • Associates at all levels and skills do not get everything right, do not always close the deal, do not always win the case.
  • All associates come to us with a backpack filled with experiences, both good and bad; channeled by egos and attitudes, prepared or otherwise for what we require of them.

COVID – 19

Resilience is all the more important in COVID-19 times, where new and expanding stressors have appeared. Our younger colleagues are working at home, many of them with the added responsibility of caring for young children who have also been displaced from their normal routine.  And they are quite understandably concerned for the future of their profession, their firms, and of course, for themselves.  Stress is the enemy at the gate; resilience the guardian within. Nothing good happens when the ramparts are breached.

The Law Society of Ontario (LSO) has in recent times increased its already salutary focus and attention on the wellbeing and mental health of our profession (for which resilience is a sine qua non), and this of course is a good thing.  Other Law Societies are equally focused.

COVID -19 has therefore upped the ante, a fact that the LSO has been quick to recognize. It is right to do so: in 2019, pre-COVID – 19, the World Health Organization noted that a negative working environment (however defined) may lead to physical and mental health problems, harmful use of substances or alcohol, absenteeism and lost productivity, and that workplaces that promote mental health and support people with mental disorders are more likely to reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and benefit from associated economic gains”. We all know this to be the case, but it bears repeating as we deal with the new stressors our younger colleagues face.

How Can We Assist?

Whether in normal or abnormal times, our younger colleagues must therefore learn to be resilient. “The exciting thing about resilience is that it is a skill. Like any skill, with practice, resilience can be learned.”  And where reasonable and practical, we must make sincere and consistent efforts to teach them.  We can, quite literally, “train the brain”.

There is a considerable volume of literature, commentary and blog space on teaching resilience, most of it dealing with children but some of it addressing adults. Two things are common to everything I have looked at: a recognition that risk and stress are present in everyone’s life, and the importance of mindfulness training. In interacting with our junior colleagues, we must both adopt and demonstrate an appreciable understanding of both.

With this in mind, there are several things we can be careful to do to equip our younger colleagues in the face of stress, disappointment and failure:

  • We can at the first opportunity talk to them straight up about the challenges they will face and the importance of being resilient and keeping on an even keel. We want our younger colleagues to appreciate the value in approaching their assignments in a steady and untroubled state. It is our responsibility to maintain a conducive environment, setting the sail by example. These discussions should regularly come from mentors and senior practitioners and partners.
  • We can stay ahead of them, by leading from behind. In 2010 the Harvard Business Review (Linda H. Hill) noted that: “For now and into the coming decade or so, the most effective leaders will lead from behind, not from the front”,  a phrase she borrowed from Nelson Mandela. We can in any given scenario, anticipate what our younger colleagues will face, the available options to them, and likely results. We can work with them and condition them.
  • We can keep close to the tasks we assign our colleagues, the tools we make available to them, and the deadlines we give them. We can be mindful in this to ensure that we do not inadvertently set them up to fail.
  • We can be careful to find the time to review and then to comment on their work, to give praise where praise is due, and to educate with frank and constructive criticism where required.
  • We can either teach them or provide them with the opportunity to attend courses on practice and time management.
  • We can to the greatest extent possible ensure that they all receive the same opportunities while they are with us, the same advantages, and the same exposure. While there is no perfect system of ensuring this in any firm, regardless of size, we can try.
  • We can encourage their value systems and their sense of self by recognizing that the world and the profession they are engaged in is materially different from our own experiences.
  • We can learn from our responses to COVID – 19, by keeping the best of the innovations we adopted, voluntarily or otherwise, such as greater tolerance for working off-site. And we can make a boundless use out of our increased understanding of the need for communication and moral

We can help them roar.

This blog post was written by K. Scott McLean, General Counsel and Director of Practice Management.  He can be reached at (613) 369-0375 or at

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