Avoid overwhelm: hit reset!

A client recently called me, and I could hear the tension in his voice right away.  Too many projects coming due at the same time (and thus, another long weekend in the office) combined with sheer exhaustion to make Rick an unhappy lawyer.  “I just don’t know how I’m going to get it all done.  I always do, but you know, I’m thinking maybe I’m not going to pull it off this time.”  We started listing out exactly what Rick needed to do and, while it was a lot of work, the truth was that he could accomplish all of it within about 30 hours, which would leave him some time free over the weekend — if, and only if, he was able to stop worrying about the work and start doing it.

“So, Rick,” I ventured, “you sound completely stressed out, and your brain seems to be going in six different ways at once.  Why don’t you hit the reset button?”

Rick took a few seconds before speaking, and when he did his voice was incredulous, laced with frustration-bordering-on-anger.  “And how would you recommend I do THAT?”

We all fall into periods of overwhelm, frustration, malaise, boredom, and so on.  Sometimes it’s a few minutes, and other times the feelings can last for weeks.  Hitting the reset button is a simple technique I recommend.  Every person I’ve ever talked with has something that serves as the human equivalent of Ctrl-Alt-Delete.  (Sorry, Mac users, you’ll have to translate that into Mac language or remember your PC days!)  And most people have a variety of strategies that may work, depending on the situation.  A few that clients and I have used:

  • Going for a walk, a run, a bike ride, or other solitary exercise
  • Playing music that pumps you up or soothes you
  • Yoga
  • Calling a friend or loved one for a short conversation
  • Flipping through vacation photos
  • Meditating, praying, or deep breathing
  • Getting a cup of coffee, tea, or other beverage of your choice and savoring it
  • Using smells (essential oils, for instance) to trigger relaxation
  • Stretching
  • Making a “gratitude list”

Although each of the activities listed above are fairly quick and designed for run-of-the-mill circumstances, hitting reset can also mean taking a weekend trip, taking a weekly class, or something else that’s sufficiently out of the ordinary to break your routine.  Each year, I spend a week alone in Wyoming, walking and thinking in nature.  When I return from my retreat, I see my business and my life through new eyes.

After Rick and I explored some ideas, he decided that he would take a quick walk around the block while listening to a favorite “power song” as soon as we hung up, and that he would make time to play ball with his son for a few minutes in the evening.  He was skeptical but willing to give “the reset” a shot.  And he discovered that it worked well enough that he now “hits reset” regularly, as soon as he starts feeling overwhelmed or otherwise on edge.

What might you do when you need to reset your system?

Under pressure? Don’t get rattled.

I noticed another lesson in the Olympics last night.  I watched the 400m relays and saw the U.S. men’s and women’s teams disqualified for dropping the baton.  The men quit running after the drop, but the women’s team anchor Lauryn Williams picked up the baton and ran the rest of the race.  It was hard to watch the drops and the runners’ responses, knowing how hard the athletes had trained and that one slip terminated any hope of winning.  I wondered if the women knew that the men had dropped the baton and, if so, if they were shaken by their teammates’ error.

Coverage cut next to the women’s 10m platform diving.  Although the Chinese divers were considered almost a lock for gold and silver, the story behind the competition was about Laura Wilkinson, the 30-year old diver hoping to wrest a medal from competitors about half her age in this, her last competition.  She’d injured her wrist and right tricep, and her dives were sufficient only to put her in 9th place.  What I noticed (as an ignorant viewer, not even a diving enthusiast) was her spirit and composure.  Although she was clearly disappointed that her dives earned such low scores, each time she mounted the platform, she smiled genuinely and gave each dive her all.

What do these sketches have to do with lawyers?  As I watched the competitions last night, I started thinking about one of my former clients — let’s call her Jane.  When we began working together, she was second-guessing herself at every turn.  Jane had a rocky start in practice and had made some mistakes.  She perceived that everyone was waiting for her to fail, and she was determined not to fail.  (Did you catch that?  She was determined not to fail, not determined to succeed.)  Her hours were being sliced because she spent so much time trying to avoid making mistakes, and yet she made them anyway.  She was discouraged, frustrated, and fearful.  And yet, Jane knew she’d performed well in the past and wanted to do so again.

Before we began working together, Jane had already come to recognize what she called “the clutch,” the sense of fear and inadequacy that paralyzed her.  When in the grips of “the clutch,” Jane found it difficult to write for fear of saying the wrong thing.  She found it difficult to edit, for fear of missing mistakes.  And even though she’s articulate and well-spoken, she found herself stuttering and talking in circles.  The harder she tried not to make these mistakes, the worse things seemed to get.  I suggested to Jane that trying to perform well while in the clutch was unlikely to work, because the clutch is simply too strong.  Our work focused on learning how to get out of the clutch.  Here are a few ideas Jane implemented:

1.  Stop and recognize the clutch.  Name it.  There is innate power in recognizing what’s happening.

2.  Breathe.  It sounds simple, but taking a few deep breaths kicks off a string of positive physiological changes that work to counteract the effects of the clutch.

3.  Figure out what exactly is going on in the moment.  What needs to be done?  What is in incoming data?  What is the next right step?

4.  Select and take an action.  The next right step can be as small as going to get a cup of coffee or stretching.  It could be choosing to edit a brief by reading it out loud, which draws on a different part of the brain and increases the chances of catching typos and errors of grammar and logic.  Or it might be taking another deep breath, adjusting to assume a more powerful stance, and moving forward with an oral presentation.

When Jane learned to take these steps, she found that she was usually able to meet the demands of the moment.  Within a couple of months she was performing on a higher level, feeling much better about herself and her work, and sufficiently confident to make a move just a few months later to a better-fitting practice.  She tells me that “the clutch” still shows up sometimes, but that she is now able to recognize it and deal with it, and it’s no longer the paralyzer that it once was for her.

Returning to the Olympics, I’m not suggesting, of course, the the relay runners “just” got rattled, and the results show that grace under pressure won’t necessarily lead to a gold medal, either literally or figuratively.  Training, physical conditioning, and skill play huge roles.  However, knowing how to escape “the clutch” increases the opportunity for training, conditioning, and skill to shine through.

Financial freedom

An anonymous email I received shortly after I began coaching haunts me.  This person (I don’t know whether male or female, but I’ll assume male here) wanted desperately to leave the practice.  He was responding to something I’d written, and he explained that he’d practiced law for nearly 20 years and hated it.  He never liked it, even in the beginning.  And yet, he wrote, he had no other choice, due to financial constraints, geography, and family expectations/requirements.

He felt destined to toil until his dying day, expecting that his stress level would keep him from living to retirement.  When I wrote to ask if he’d be open to a conversation, free of charge, to see if he might have some alternatives, he thanked me but declined: his children were in college and someone had to pay those bills, he had to finance retirement on the off chance that he’d live to see it, and he had no choice other than to continue plugging away and hoping for some unknown change to make things better.  It was, at the risk of being melodramatic, like a suicide note from the soul.

Fortunately, most of my clients are relatively happy in their careers and are seeking a tweak or to develop a strategy to improve their professional success and satisfaction.  Even those who consider leaving the practice are upbeat about their options, though challenges do pop up along the route.  I’ve noticed that some of the happiest lawyers are those who have created reasonable financial stability that allows options — in other words, financial freedom.

Is it possible to be financially free with as much as $100K in student loans, nevermind the other costs of living?  Yes. It’s not only possible, it’s necessary for a sustainable career.  And freedom absolutely does not require millions in the bank and no debt.  It requires careful choices and attention.

One of the biggest mistakes I see in new lawyers, especially those pulling down the $160K “big firm” salaries, is living the lifestyle full out.  The new BMW, the gorgeous condo, all of those nice accoutrements that seem like a fair reward for the hard work required to reach that earning level — if not purchased carefully, they turn into the proverbial golden handcuffs.

Some of the most disappointed professionals I know (this isn’t at all limited to lawyers) are those who literally bought into the lifestyle and then found it impossible to leave.  Others work as hard as they can, not to advance their careers, but because they fear that if they let up even a little bit they’ll be fired.  Sometimes that fear is realistic, especially in the current economy.  Handling it comes through taking an objective look at the likelihood of getting fired and working to create value.  Creating a contingency plan with a cushion of savings and a good network (in case a new job is in order) often helps as much or more.

Now, let’s be honest: anyone who knows me knows that I enjoy travel and impulse buys as much as the next person.  I’m not urging an ascetic lifestyle, nor am I recommending the kinds of budget cuts that reduce reasonable day-to-day comfort.  What I do recommend is living with enough of a financial cushion that a brief period of unemployment, whether voluntary or otherwise, wouldn’t be a catastrophe.  Living the $160K (or $100K or $250K or whatever the figure may be) lifestyle requires you stay at that level of income and eliminates a host of choices that would otherwise exist.

Are you wearing golden handcuffs?  What changes can you implement today to begin to build your financial freedom?  And remember not to look at this question just from the perspective of what you might eliminate: business development activity may create a book of business that will give you a measure of security worthy of the investment required to get it.

Freedom of Expression

While describing an assessment I often use to a lawyer-client, I mentioned that it provides feedback about one’s natural tendencies and those tendencies as adapted to work, explaining that almost everyone wears a “mask” of some sort at work.

“You got that right,” my client chuckled wryly.

We went on to discuss the discomfort this client feels in the workplace.  She chooses not to be herself in the office, to rein in the zany and hilarious side of herself in an effort to show up as the cool, calm professional whose judgment is above reproach.  And, frankly, it’s hard to blame her or any of the others who make a similar decision.  Especially in a competitive world in which reputation may be built on first impressions and damaged in a moment, playing it safe may be an appealing choice.

That said, when there’s too much of a gap between one’s “real” self and one’s “work” self, going to work may become unbearably stressful.  A great deal of energy can be consumed by molding oneself to expectations, and everyone I’ve known to be in such a situation gets worn down by maintaining a false persona.  Even more troublesome, authenticity is generally regarded as a key leadership attribute.  People often sense inauthenticity, and when authenticity is lacking, it’s tough to build or maintain relationships.

I’ve always enjoyed the quote, “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”  (Attributed, variously, to Walt Disney, Dr. Seuss, and Bernard Baruch.)  Of course, those who employ or retain you do matter.  So, what if you feel required to present yourself as someone you aren’t?  The question is much too big for a single blog post, but I’ll throw out a few ideas.  If it generates sufficient interest, I’ll elaborate on another day.

1.  Change positions.  Sometimes it’s a “fit” issue.  A firm’s “culture” will define what is and isn’t acceptable, and a baseline fit between lawyer and firm is important.  While it’s unlikely that you’ll find a firm that allows you to be exactly who you are at home on a weekend morning among family or close friends, it is possible to find a firm where you can be more or less the same person.  If the “fit” is wrong, you’ll likely have the metaphorical sense of wearing a suit that’s too tight: constriction at work followed by the renewed ability to breathe when you’re elsewhere.  If you’re happy with your professional self, then the suit has to go.  Just be sure to note the areas of constriction so you’ll know what atmosphere would be a better fit.

2.  Practice allowing your personality to show.  Sometimes the issue is one of comfort: personality might be welcome, but you need to develop a certain comfort level to believe that’s true.  Try cracking a few jokes, mentioning your interest in feng shui, or hanging that unusual painting in your office.  And measure the reaction you get.  Assuming a reasonably good fit, you’ll probably begin to relax a bit (when the situation is appropriate for relaxing) and allow your slightly quirky self to show.  Treading slowly is probably a good idea: no one appreciates the colleague who lets the freak flag fly a little too high.  But personality is part of what will draw other lawyers and clients to you.  No one wants to work with an automaton.

3.  Express yourself in covert ways.  One of my good friends (not a lawyer) served as a consultant for several years for one of the big companies that functioned remarkably like a law firm.  She bought a toe ring that reminded her of her “outside” life and the trip to the Bahamas where she bought the ring.  I’ve known lawyers who relished having a navel piercing, living in an unusual part of town, or playing in a rock band on the weekends — none completely secret, really, just private enough to share with a select few.

4.  Act in integrity with your values.  On occasion, I’ve known lawyers who felt they were required to conform in distasteful ways.  Choosing to laugh at jokes that conflict with deeply held beliefs, for instance, puts a higher value on conformity than on the deeply held belief.  Integrity requires finding some way to reconcile belief and action, whether it’s ignoring or challenging the distasteful view.  Sometimes it’s an opportunity to educate, and sometimes it’s a sign that the firm/lawyer fit is wrong.

How closely do your home and work personas match?  Do you want or need to make a change?

Freedom to choose

It’s been a busy weekend at the Fleming-Brown household.  One of my dogs, Jake, is the most cowardly animal I’ve ever met when it comes to thunderstorms — and the most wily.  Both dogs sleep downstairs in crates, mostly because my cat would become a canape if they were allowed free reign at night.  We’ve been having thunderstorms in Atlanta lately, and Jake has become an escape artist extraordinaire.  Despite latches at the top and bottom of the door and reinforcements added on a daily basis, Jake has learned to escape his crate.  (Had I been his first family, with naming privileges, I would have named him Houdini, since the Crate Escape is just the latest in a long line of breaks.)  I don’t know why he wants to escape, and my guess is that he doesn’t either.  He hears a clap of thunder, and his reaction is, I gotta get out of here!

I’d decided to write on the theme of freedom this week, in honor of July 4, and today’s post is particularly motivated by Jake.

Stephen Covey, perhaps best known as the author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, said this about freedom: “Between stimulus and response is our greatest power – the freedom to choose.”

How often do you react, and how often do you respond?

Reaction imples knee-jerk action, with little or no thought — perhaps when you discover that something has gone wrong with a case, that there’s a deadline looming and you’ll have to work all night, or that a client was irritated by a sloppy error, and you react by shooting the messenger?  At the risk of comparing a lawyer with my dog, Jake lives in reaction mode.  Thunder = run for him, period.

Responding suggests allowing enough space to consider the consequences and implications of action and then choosing: given the same bad news, you might respond by swinging into problem-solving mode rather than anger.

Just about everyone is more likely to react when stressed, tired, or otherwise not operating at peak levels.  Fortunately, there’s a single action that you can take to build in a pause and an opportunity to respond, almost regardless of the provocation.  (I’m excluding physical provocation here.)

Take a deep breath.

Just breathing will create a break between action and reaction/response.  During that break, you can choose whether fight/flight/argument/acquiesence and you can consider what response will be likely to move you toward your goal.  You might shoot the messenger anyway, of course: we all make choices we regret even after thinking them through.  But you will have created the opportunity to make a conscious decision, increasing the chances of a response you won’t regret. ◊

Is it what you thought it would be?

My home office in Atlanta is on a two-lane primary road just a few blocks from Emory University’s law school.  Today is graduation, and since about 6:30 AM, I’ve been watching cars full of well-dressed people, taxis, chartered buses, and even limos drive by.  It’s quite the parade!  And in fact, today marks the 15th anniversary of my own law school graduation at Emory.  And so, I’m wondering.

Is your life as a lawyer what you expected? Perhaps not in the details of where you’re working or even what kind of law you’re practicing, but in the larger picture of how you spend your days, whether you enjoy what you’re doing (at least, most of most days), whether you can see yourself continuing on this path for the foreseeable future.  Is your career successful (as you define successful), satisfying, and sustainable?

If not, what’s falling short?  If your practice isn’t sufficiently successful, do you need to work on business development or leadership skills?  What would it take for you to feel satisfied?

I work with lawyers who want to find more success and satisfaction in a sustainable practice.  Perhaps we should get acquainted?

6 options for anger management

Lawyers who are or aspire to be leaders must learn to self-manage.  Especially when stressed or under pressure (and who isn’t, at least part of the time?) it’s easy to let self-management slide in the face of provocation.  Some attorneys I know offer a blanket apology to staff and colleagues — something like, “I’m feeling stressed, so please excuse me if I blow up or yell at you or throw things, ok?”  I don’t recommend that approach; it’s been than nothing, I suppose, but it’s actually announcing that bad behavior is coming, apparently largely unchecked.

Let’s be real: attorneys are often faced with statements, actions, arguments, behavior, etc. that is galling in the extreme. It’s a common practice in litigation among some to make an effort to find their opponents’ hot buttons; push the button and out pops an ugly, crazy person – not someone a jury would respect or believe. (Same goes for witnesses, too.)  So how can you handle it when faced with provocation that would make the Buddha quiver with rage?

1. Keep your attention on the motivation behind the provocation. Is the person who’s enraging you doing it intentionally, or is it a by-product of words or behavior that he likely thinks perfectly appropriate? If it’s the former, don’t give him the satisfaction of knowing he succeeded. If it’s the latter, consider whether displaying annoyance would stop the behavior or simply let your opponent know that he’s found a soft spot.

2. Breathe. This is great advice for just about any situation, but it’s especially good for dealing with anger. You can react, which implies knee-jerk emotional feedback made without any reflection, or you can respond, which implies feedback that follows a pause and analysis/reflection to determine the best way to address the provocation. It’s far better to respond than to react. There’s no reason why you can’t fall silent for a few seconds (which may feel interminable to you and your opponent) while you work through your options.

3. Speak softly. Most of us tend to raise our voices when we speak in anger. Therefore, it’s disarming to do the opposite and to speak more quietly. The effect is to appear reasonable and controlled (especially helpful if your opponent is ranting and raving and appearing to be out of control) and to force your opponent to listen carefully to hear what you have to say. I am informed that in Japanese culture, when two parties are arguing, the one who raises her voice first loses. It’s a difficult tactic for many of us to master, but if you can speak softly in the face of provocation, you will stand a much better chance of controlling your anger.

4. Vent. Express your anger in some forum that poses no risk of exposing it. Writing can be helpful, but especially if you write an angry response to an email, be sure that you don’t accidentally send it!

5. Exercise. That’s physical venting. When feasible, it’s a great idea to get up and take a walk instead of marinating in a situation that makes you angry.

6. Selective release of anger. Sometimes, it’s absolutely appropriate to express your anger at the person whose behavior has caused it. But consider the consequences of such an expression. Will you disrupt a relationship? Do you stand to lose ground? Will your expressed anger cause the person to react in a way that will cause you even more trouble? And when you do choose to display anger, consider doing so through your words only but continuing to speak in a low, even tone of voice. That will reinforce the gravity of your words.

And, despite our best efforts at these tactics, all of us lose our tempers sometimes. Especially in time of frustration and stress, it’s easy to let it slip, despite best efforts. When that happens, don’t be afraid to apologize and admit to being human.


Think back to elementary school.  My guess is (depending on your generation), when the teacher called roll most students responded by saying, “Here!”  And usually, especially by 5th grade or so, one wise guy (were there gunners in elementary school?!) would respond by answering, “Present!”  The other kids would snicker and the teacher might look up with that slightly annoyed look.  But, you know what?  That kid was onto something, as an email I received recently reminded me.

A group I belong to has been trying to arrange a telephone meeting, and one colleague recently responded to a tentative date by saying, “I’ll be there, and I’ll do my best to be present.”  Present implies being focused on matters at hand, not distracted by what went on before the meeting began or what’s coming up next, not thinking about what’s for dinner or how to get in the CLE before the deadline, or any of the myriad of things that may zip through at any given moment.  It’s paying attention, being dialed in to what’s really happening at both the surface and underlying levels.

“Present” versus “Here” is the point of meditation and centering practices, at least to this beginner.  It’s choosing to focus the mind on one thing, whether that’s breath or a word or phrase, and choosing gently to push away other thoughts that intrude.  And those practices train the mind to remain present at other times.

Now, imagine a large-scale negotiation, case status meeting, or the like.  A big conference table with lots of lawyers seated around it, or (perhaps more challengingly) a telephone conference, with people dialing in from different offices arond the country or around the world.  Imagine someone taking roll midway through the meeting.  How can you ensure you’d respond with “Present”?