Associates’ Pounding Fear: How to Cope

One of the emotions that marks new associates (and, in some firm cultures, all associates) is fear.  Law demands excellence, and clients — whether internal or external — require perfection.  That isn’t unreasonable.  But those expectations can cause enormous stress, followed quickly by a lawyer’s fear of what details he may have overlooked.

I’ll never forget the time when I was working on a large case with over twenty depositions taking place in one month.  I would wake up at night with the sudden fear that maybe, just maybe, I’d forgotten to send out a transcript for a witness’s review, that perhaps I overlooked a critical error in the witness’s testimony that we’d need to deal with, that I might have neglected to arrange a court reporter for one of the many depositions.  I never made any of those mistakes (and I did have a system to ensure that I didn’t) but the fear was real.

I don’t think it’s possible to avoid these fears completely.  But it is possible to take certain steps to allay them.

First, if it’s detail-oriented fear as I describe above, develop your system to keep track of all the details for which you’re responsible.  That can be anything from a chart for deposition-related tasks (a favorite of mine) to a running “to do” list maintained on your computer that you clear on a daily basis so it’s always current.

If your fear is performance anxiety, take a radical step and ask for feedback.  Most firms have formal feedback programs in which your work is reviewed on an annual basis.  Although the programs are important, they’re not helpful for addressing problems (or feared problems) as they arise — and who wants to wait months to find out whether the fears are real?  Asking for feedback throughout the year will allow you to know where you stand and what corrections you may need to make.  To request feedback, ask a single, focused, open-ended question: “How did I do on the So-and-So brief?”  And then, wait.  It’s easy to rapid-fire questions, but it’s important to allow some time for the lawyer to reflect on the question and form his answer.  Alternatively, if you have several specific questions, you might consider sending an email asking for feedback and outlining your questions.  (Downside to this, though, is that it “formalizes” the request.)  Once you’ve asked and get some response, clarify as needed or ask for advice on how to improve, and then move on.  This typically won’t be a 30-minute process, but instead a 5- or 10-minute conversation that’s neither formal nor structured.

Peer mentors can be invaluable in addressing your fears, because they have the experience to tell you whether someone’s reaction is meaningful or random.  For instance, you’ll work with some partners who blow up at the drop of a hat and others who have a slow fuse.  Of course, the short-tempered partner will get angry more often than her more equanimous colleague, and her reactions will likely carry less import.  That isn’t to say you can ignore them, but finding a peer mentor who can help you recognize when she’s just blowing off steam will save you hours of worry.

Do a reality check.  Although fears may have a basis in reality, they may not.  Know yourself.  Although it’s no guarantee, chances are good that if you tend to be detail-oriented, you’re going to have internalized the systems to make sure you don’t overlook details.  Once you’ve developed systems to manage your work, rely on those systems.

Finally, know when your fear is too much.  Fear can be paralyzing.  Don’t allow yourself to get so caught up in fear that it controls your life.  The steps above will help minimize the cause of your fears and will help you to recognize when you should and shouldn’t worry.  If these steps don’t help, if you’re having persistent stomach aches or waking up bathed in sweat every night with a fear list zipping through your brain, get help.  Your firm may offer resources, or you might consult a coach (to help you strategize work management systems) or a counselor (to help you deal with the roots of your fear).  Fear is a common feature in a legal life, but it doesn’t have to be pervasive.

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