Snap Out of It

I love a good juicy, gossipy story. Unsurprisingly, I love terrible reality tv. I suppose this speaks to our human tendency toward the negative but there is something about having a good ranting and raving session with your girlfriends about the terrible thing that happened to you or someone else. It’s cathartic! But catharsis aside, when spending too much time extrapolating on the negative aspects of our lives, it can quickly devolve into what behavioral psychologists call the drama triangle.

Have you ever had that moment when your dramatic rant is abruptly halted by someone suggesting that the problem might just be YOU?


When we’re accustomed to dripping in negativity about our bosses or our jobs, it is jarring and somewhat offensive when someone suddenly stops playing along in favor of some new perspective.

It’s like that group of single girlfriends that spends every Saturday night together bashing their love interests and blaming them for their lack of happiness and then one night, one of the friends interjects, “What if the problem is us, not them?” Battle lines are suddenly drawn. The mere suggestion that the group perception of reality is skewed and subtly suggesting that they are co-creators of their imperfect reality, is blasphemous. It challenges the very foundation of their friendship and their understanding of who they are in their worldview.

Although the pursuit of a career is not the same as the pursuit of a meaningful relationship, our tendency to fall into certain patterns remains constant, no matter the circumstances. Our tendency to see ourselves as the victim and others as the villain is commonplace and often pervasive in professional environments. Overgeneralizations about dating like “all men/women are dogs” turn into “my boss completely ignores me.” In either case, we are playing a role in what Stephen Karpman calls the “drama triangle.”

Karpman’s drama triangle examines the connection between personal relationships and power in conflicts. The triangle identifies three characters that play a role in conflicts: the persecutor, the rescuer, and the victim. The victim is the primary character who interacts with the persecutor whom the victim blames for their suffering. Then, there is the rescuer who periodically steps in to try and alleviate the victim’s suffering.

In the complicated world of practicing law, I often see my clients vacillating between the victim role and the rescuer.

In the former scenario, their partners/clients/bosses are the persecutor and in the latter, they become the rescuer to the poor planning/demands/needs of their persecutor. 

In one role, we are angry and suffering in our victimhood, and in the other, we are energized by our action as we imagine that our rescuing will “mend” the relationship with our persecutors.

On the one hand, we blame the persecutors for our experiences but then we shift to rescuers, aiming to please our persecutors and seeking some kernel of appreciation from our villains. The dynamic is incredibly toxic and co-dependent and many women that I work with feel compelled to seek out that positive feedback from their persecutors. They spend their entire career aiming to please the seemingly impossible to please persecutors–they are perpetually “rescuing” others in hopes that their value will one day be recognized.

The solution to the drama triangle is the empowerment dynamic developed by David Emerald Womeldorff. The empowerment dynamic asks the victim to take ownership of their lives. To creatively solution their problems and start focusing on what they want and what they can control. Similarly, the rescuer shifts to a coaching role where the codependency is broken and they offer detached support, no longer making the victim’s problems their own These shifts are the only solution to the drama triangle.

In either case, resolution of the drama triangle requires us to take ownership of what is ours and let others take ownership for what is their own. Period.

I work with women every day to recognize the roles they play in the power dynamics of their careers. My work supports women to take back their power and take control over their careers. We may not be able to fix the difficult personalities attendant to practicing law but we can stop blaming them for our unhappiness; we can take control and start taking active steps to create the life we want, the life we deserve.

The goal isn’t to find a perfect workplace, the goal is to do our best to make it work; to actively invest in our own happiness, and stop giving them all the control. Your happiness is worth it.

Sign up for a free consultation today and get the support you need to live empowered and escape the drama. 

Photo by Annie Gavin on Unsplash

Standing In Your Own Way

I’m a firm believer that everybody needs to be doing this work. Why is that? Because we all have ugly thinking that we are carrying around with us that acts as an energetic ball and chain keeping us from creating the life that we really want.

To illustrate this point, I’ve been thinking through accomplishments in history where it’s clear that the champions were able to challenge the thinking of the time in order to create something great.

One thing that most readily came to mind was the concept that our earth is flat. And yes, I have seen the Netflix documentary Flat Earth exploring those of us who continue to subscribe to the belief that our earth is, in fact, flat. Flat Earth people aside, let’s consider the thinking that led to the discovery that our earth is actually round. In order to take the actions that ultimately confirmed the earth’s spherical shape, early thinkers from Pythagoras, Eratosthenes, Aristotle, Plato, Columbus, etc. had to be open to the possibility that the current thinking about the earth was wrong. They had to consider the possibility that everything we had always thought might not be the absolute truth. At the time, these men might not have known how right they were but at least they were open to the possibility.

We cannot do great things while carrying with us opposing beliefs.

These historical figures could not have generated the confidence and curiosity to challenge the theory of the earth’s flatness while being equally invested in the belief that the earth was flat. They had to shake that belief loose and consider the possibility that it might not be absolute. They were open to challenging the predominant certainties.

While this may seem an obvious and unnecessary exploration of history, I point this out because so often my clients are unwilling to dive into the ugly parts of their own brains. They want to develop the pretty thoughts and motivating thoughts or the thoughts that will generate action for them. They don’t want to spend time rolling up their sleeves and looking at their negative thinking and challenging those beliefs.

This is counterproductive and will serve only to create greater cognitive dissonance for my clients as they try to move forward. It’s like stretching a rubber band until it snaps back together — sure, you can make progress in that direction but the progress is never permanent; you always end up right back where you started. You simply cannot generate new action and new results from the same set of beliefs — you have to start thinking and feeling differently.

This requires us to challenge our existing thinking. 

In order to take action in a new direction, we need to generate emotions that will drive new actions and new explorations in recognition that a different truth may exist. Where we have conflicting beliefs that we continue to invest in and give energy to we’re never going to be open to equally investing in a new belief that will generate the energy needed to create the action that we want in order to create a new result.

In sum, unless and until we dismantle pre-existing belief models we will never have the energetic capacity to create new actions and results.

The conflicting, outdated beliefs will act as a ball-and-chain keeping the new beliefs from gaining traction. We will only be partially invested in the new belief, thus the emotions and actions that belief can generate will be restrained. The result is that we will never fully create what we want because we have always hedged our bets by holding onto our existing beliefs.

When we try to breathe life into new beliefs without dismantling our old operating system, we stifle our efforts.

We cannot shift to prettier thoughts and create better feelings and results while at the same time equally investing in opposing beliefs. It’s like putting on a pair of shoes that are 10 sizes too big and trying to run a marathon. It just doesn’t work. Those aren’t your shoes!

The majority of the women I work with want to be more confident. They want to believe they can do it, that they are doing a good job, and that they are good enough. They want to live and act from that space. The problem is they aren’t facing the reality that parts of them are still persuaded by beliefs that they aren’t good enough and that they aren’t going to make it. They are still holding on to the possibility that what they want to believe is not true.

Unless and until they unpack that circus, they will never be able to act from a genuine place of confident beliefs.

We have to look at those existing beliefs and get to a place where we can see them as just that. Choices were making and things we’re choosing to believe. We limit ourselves because we are not coming to new beliefs from a place of investment; rather, we are coming to a new belief from a place of uncertainty and exploration because we’re still committed to believing something else. We cannot create the life we want if we show up every day believing that law firms are unfriendly places for women, places where women can’t succeed as easily as men. That belief is never going to stop sucking part of your energy away from the true intended goal of building a practice you are happy in. That belief will always creep in and reinvest your energy in hopelessness.

If you are truly seeking success in your law firm, we have to start thinking about the law firm life differently.

We have to be open to the possibility that what we have been believing all along is not necessarily true. It’s just our opinion. It’s not factual and it is not serving us. In other words, we cannot shift any beliefs until we find ourselves in a place where we can see the old beliefs as what they are: bad choices that you’re no longer going to make. Not facts and clearly not places we choose to our energy. Only from there can we shift our energy to something new and start creating something new. To do otherwise is to divide our efforts and divide our energy and handicap yourself from the very beginning.

So there it is my friends, get to work looking at your ugly thinking and work on yourself from a place where you can see that all your beliefs about the situation are optional perceptions. You can choose something else. You can be open to the possibility that your perceptions are not the only truth available to you.

Work with me; schedule a free consult and let’s start dismantling your “thought” balls and chains so you can start creating lasting change.

Photo by Joey Kyber from Pexels

I “Should” Help, I’m an Attorney

The delightfully irritating word “should.”

Should is such a worthless word. The word “should” only matters when we are talking about something factual, provable, demonstrable. My coffee pot should turn on when I plug it in. My email should transmit when I click send. The light should turn on when I flip the switch.

“Should” makes sense in this scenario because these things are designed to operate in a certain way. There’s a manual that supports your conclusion that these machines are supposed to act in a certain way. You bought them for a very specific purpose, to perform a very clear task. We know what this thing is supposed to do: it is widely understood and accepted.

That usage has no translation to human beings. There is no manual, there is no widely understood and accepted understanding of how we are supposed to act.

You can argue religious mores and social norms all you like; they are not universally held or agreed upon.

But yet here we are, constantly telling ourselves what we “should” be doing. How we are supposed to act.

As a practicing lawyer, I often find myself in situations where people that I love want me to help them sort out their legal struggles. (For background, my specialty is in ERISA, taxes, DOL/IRS funsies.) In all honesty, my utility in helping family and friends with their legal issues is fairly limited. File a lawsuit? No thanks, my secretary knows more about that than I do (she also supports a busy litigator).  It’s difficult for non-lawyers to appreciate that lawyers, like doctors, have their own unique specialties. Just as you would not ask a gynecologist to opine on your ear ache, asking an ERISA attorney to advise you on your divorce is ill-advised (for all parties).

But yet, so many of my clients struggle with saying no.

They have a hard time admitting that they don’t know all aspects of the law. They have a hard time saying “no” to their loved ones who want support for their legal challenges. They know enough to be dangerous and can probably “figure it out.”

So many of my clients back themselves into a corner, agreeing to do things that they don’t REALLY want to do, things that they shouldn’t do, things that ask them to color outside the lines. They agree to do it because they feel like they “should” help as much as they can. But then as they settle into the work, they are fuming. How could they have asked me to do this? How rude of them to expect that I have time for this? They should be paying someone to do this (not me!).

Instead of being honest with the people in our lives, we mislead them and mischaracterize our interest in helping. In other words, we lie to them and then we get angry for having to do the work. We pretend like these other people forced us into this predicament. Why? Because we SHOULD help.

What would it be like to have an honest and authentic conversation with these people instead of lying to them? What would it be like to believe

I can help them to the best of my ability without taking on this project for them. I can support from the sidelines.

This goes for all areas of our lives where we struggle to say NO to those we love.

We want them to love us, admire us, believe in us.

We are so willing to trade our own truth for the possibility of them thinking about us in a certain way. This is really very simple manipulation! But here’s the truth, you can’t control what they think of you. So it’s a totally FUTILE manipulation attempt.

What’s more, you can decide what you want to make it mean when you say “no.” You can choose to believe that you are letting them down and that you SHOULD help them. Or you can choose to believe that loving them and  being honest with them is your greatest contribution.

You can support your loved ones and not agree to do things you don’t want to do.

Seek authenticity and honesty in all your relationships. It is okay to say “No” when you want to say no.

You don’t need a good reason for it and you don’t need to explain yourself. There is no manual you must follow, you get to do whatever you want because you are a human. Period.

What is the upside of doing that thing you didn’t want to do? How much fun is it to fume about the project every step of the way and beat yourself up for saying yes? How is that serving the relationship?

As lawyers, we have a lot of experience and knowledge that we can offer those around us. With that ability comes the need to set clear boundaries and honor yourself by learning when to say no.

Invest in your relationships and invest in your own integrity. Your relationships will thrive because of it.

Having a challenging relationship? Need help saying no? I’m free if you are.

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Fairy Tales and Happy Endings

Recently, I had a client ask me:  Have you ever had a client that achieves all their goals and is just living the dream and happy?

She wanted me to say Yes! I have made her life a dream. I can solve ALL of your problems too, I promise. I can make you happy. I can make your life happy.

But that wasn’t the truth. There is no happy ending. There is no happily ever after.

The truth is that even when we achieve our dreams, we still feel like crap half of the time.

I remember when it first set in for me. I had a job at a big, fancy firm, and I was riding the elevators one evening and I realized This is what I went to law school for. This is what all those late nights and missed parties were for. This is what my life is going to be like for the next 50 years. I will never forget the feeling I had that night as I rode the elevator down to the first floor. It was such a heavy and depressing reality. I thought becoming a lawyer would feel differently. I thought I would feel different. That I would feel happy and successful and confident. I didn’t.

I didn’t feel any differently than I had always felt.

It was a such a poignant experience. I was faced with the reality that my big accomplishment did not change anything. I felt the exact same as I did all those years prior.

The foolish man seeks happiness in the distance, the wise grows it under his feet.

James Oppenheim

Our happiness is not created by achievements or by people and events outside of ourselves. Accolades do not create happiness. What we think about ourselves having received that accolade is what creates happiness.

Consider this: If you won an Academy Award for your role in a movie that you were never in, would that award make you feel happy? Of course it wouldn’t because it wouldn’t generate any positive thoughts for you other than confusion. But if you were in that movie and received an Academy Award, you would feel happy because you would be thinking I have finally made it. This proves that I am an amazing actress. The award itself conveys nothing—if it did then even those who had no relationship with the award would feel automatically happy once they receive it. The happiness comes from what we are thinking.

The problem is that when we look for happiness externally, it is fleeting. People will forget who won Academy Awards and years later, few people will think of you when you think of that award or accolade. So the cycle begins again.

The cycle of finding another external goal to re-create the feeling of happiness.

It is a never-ending cycle. I see it so often in my clients who achieve massive goals to become doctors or lawyers or acclaimed scholars only to find that they still aren’t happy. The achievement didn’t bring them happiness.

Happiness comes from within. It comes from how you think about yourself, your relationships, and your life. Achieving a goal will not suddenly make you happy. It won’t solve all your problems.

You will still be a human and your human life will always come with its own struggles, at least 50% of the time.

So, the truth is that no, I don’t have clients that achieve all their goals and are suddenly happy. Rather, I have clients who achieve their goals and completely miss it. They are so busy looking for more and still trying to feel something different that they don’t even take notice of all they have accomplished. They don’t take time to celebrate how far they have come because it was never really about the accomplishment. It was about how they thought they would feel once they got there. When they don’t get that feeling, when they don’t suddenly feel happier, they just keep on moving and searching. They don’t even notice the accomplishment.

As a coach, part of my job is to make sure that you take a breath and celebrate all those victories and all those goals. Celebrating yourself with loved ones can bring its own happiness and good memories—maybe even more so than the goal itself.

If you are striving toward some big goal, make sure that you have not convinced yourself that goal will make you happy or will make your life easier.

In order to find happiness, you have to look within and develop that relationship with yourself.

Without that relationship, no achievement is ever going to make a real impact in your happiness. If you aren’t doing your inner work, all that outer work will go un-noticed and will leave you feeling deflated. Learn how here.

How to Build Your Practice

When I was mid-level associate, I was recruited by another firm to build and chair a new practice group in my specialty. It was a huge task and brought with it some pretty monumental challenges. After a period of 6 years, I had successfully created a thriving practice group with three partners, an associate, summer clerks and a paralegal. Small, yes, but we took the firm from zero to millions of dollars in revenue in that practice area in just a few years. Because of that experience, young attorneys often sought me out for advice on how to build their own practice or niche.

The following are my ramblings for building a thriving practice. Take them as you will. Everyone’s experience will be different.

Network with everyone you know. Everyone.

You never know where these people will end up. From personal experience, I will tell you that once a person finds themselves in a position where they could actually send you legal work (e.g., in-house counsel at a Fortune 500 company), they are not amused when you suddenly call to buddy up to them after all these years. We all know what that call is really about.

Maintain true relationships with people so that when they do find themselves in a position to hire you, you are already top of their mind. Don’t try to force relationships to better your business position. People will sense it and shut. you. out.

Who to keep in contact with? This list is endless but here are a few ideas:

  • Schoolmates who live in your city.
  • Law school class mates.
  • Current and former coworkers.
  • Friends of your family members.
  • Relatives.
  • People you meet at networking events.

You get the picture. Do not discard anyone because they aren’t currently in a position to hire you as an attorney. You will be amazed at where people end up. Develop the relationship. The business will follow.

Join something. Anything.

Don’t overthink it. Just do it. Expand your reach and you will be amazed at where it may land. Examples of where to look:

  • Chamber of commerce.
  • Legal associations.
  • Alumni associations.
  • Affinity groups—dogs, plants, baking.
  • Leadership programs.
  • Toastmasters.
  • Women’s organizations.
  • Nonprofit guilds or boards.

Not only will this make you a more well-rounded and likely happier human, you might meet some people who can introduce you to future clients. If nothing else, you have something to put on your resume or discuss during an interview when someone asks, “What do you do for fun?”

Don’t like this line of thinking? Read Bowling Alone or The Happiness Project to learn why social interaction is so essential to our communities and our wellbeing.

Play the long game and postpone the elevator speech.

Business development is all about relationships. Pure and simple. If someone knows you and likes you and trusts you, they will do what they can to support you and see you succeed. That being said, cramming your elevator speech down their throats is not going to get you business. It’s probably going to annoy them. Save that for a later opportunity, when your new friend tells you about a business challenge they are having or asks you about your firm or your practice. Wait until they want to hear about it or until they need your advice. That, my friends, is when you present it. Wait until you know what problem they need solved and then present them with how you intend to solve it for them.

Meet with as many of your coworkers as possible.

Print off the employee roster and start making the rounds. Tell them you want to hear more about their practice or would like some insights into their work, the firm, or a particular client. Whatever. Just get those meetings/coffees/lunches scheduled and make it happen.

The goal: Learn from them and about them and allow them to learn about you and your practice.

These people will not only have clients that they might want you to support but they might have clients that NEED your support and they just don’t know it yet. Furthermore, these people will have invaluable insights in the firm, its people, and its politics. Schedule the meetings and start taking notes.

Examples of things to talk about:

  • What do you think sets our firm apart from the others?
  • Where do you see the firm going in the next 10 years?
  • How do you think the firm has changed since you joined?
  • What brought you to the firm?
  • Tell me more about your story and how you ended up in law school and this firm?
  • What are some ways you have found success in getting clients and developing your business?
  • Tell me about your work and what you offer to our clients?
  • What is your ‘target client’ and how could I help you with those clients?
  • Are there areas you think I should learn or develop some additional knowledge that might help you or your clients?
  • Would you like to hear about my practice area and how I support our clients?

This rule also applies to your peers at the firm. Fast forward 10 years into your practice–who do you hope will be sending you referrals or collaborating with you? Those peers are just as important as the partners and the clients.

When I left my first firm, I kept in touch with a few of the other female attorneys and partners I liked and respected. Years later, one of these friends recommended me for my current position. That friendship and connection paved the way for opportunities several years down the road. Had I lost contact with her after she left the firm, who knows where I would have landed.

When I got to work drumming up clients for my new practice group, I met with every partner I could pin down. I asked them to introduce me to their clients and others in the firm who could support me. Those meetings are where I built my practice. Those relationships plugged me in with clients who didn’t even know they needed my specialty.

Do your homework.

When you meet with a client (or a partner) for the first time, do you legwork. You should know about the company and have a general sense of their business. Review any governmental filings you can get your hands on. Review the internal files. Show up to that meeting already invested in that person and that client. People like to feel important. They like to feel special. By doing your homework you equip yourself with all the tools to let that other person know they are important to you.

When I was helping my clients interview and hire new service providers, I can’t tell you how many times we cut providers simply because they clearly didn’t know anything about the company and didn’t take the time to study my clients’ needs. Don’t be that service provider. Do the work.

Similarly, have your elevator speech ready if the opportunity arises. And never, ever, go to a meeting without a notepad, business cards, and marketing materials about your practice or a copy of the recent article you wrote.

Fill your calendar.

When you are newly hired, you won’t likely be busy right out of the gate. So, make sure your calendar stays full doing CLEs, meet and greets, networking events, reading relevant articles, preparing marketing materials or file memos on relevant developments. Offer to support partners in their marketing efforts or to track new legislation. Your calendar should be full. Get creative and find ways to fill it that will develop you, support the firm, and ideally benefit a partner or client. Sign up for speaking engagements, offer to speak at bar association events –force yourself to learn a topic and go speak about it. Too much for you? Offer to write a speech/presentation for a partner. Contact trade journals and offer to write an article or offer to support your partners in doing the same. If you spend your time trying to make your partners look good and make their lives easier, they won’t forget it.

Make yourself available.

This doesn’t mean that you always have to be 100% available and it doesn’t mean that you have to be at the office all hours of the day. Establish regular hours so people know when to expect you and feel like they can rely on you to be available when they need you. At a minimum, your hours should loosely track the hours kept by the partners you intend to support. Get people in the mindset of thinking of you as a person who is responsive and hardworking. Once they have that perception of you, studies have shown they will not likely change it, even if you change. Put in the time early on and become someone that others can count on.

Have a positive attitude and be open to anything.

You never know what will happen to the firm, your practice group, your area of expertise, or your mentor. Hedge your bets and be willing to learn and try new things for the first few years. Make yourself an invaluable and irreplaceable utility player.

Have your own back.

Make sure to keep diligent track of your marketing and development efforts. These tasks often go unseen by compensation committees and management. Do the work to track your efforts and advocate for yourself. If you don’t have your own back, how can you expect others to?

Struggling to implement your own practice development plan? Coach with me and learn from my experiences and create your own successful practice.

Other Humans – How to Deal

So many of our day-to-day problems and stressors all boil down to one nasty little word: SHOULD. I should be nicer to my spouse. I should answer my phone when my brother calls. My boss should be more appreciative of me. My husband should take out the trash. My parents should respect my approach to parenting. I am willing to wager that if each of us could cut that nasty word out of our lives and changed nothing else, we would be markedly happier.

Where do these “shoulds” come from?

Is there some universal guidebook out there that dictates how our family members, significant others, or friends should act? Is there some instruction manual that everyone else has but me? How does everyone know how they are supposed to act or what they should do in any given situation? Did someone forget to give me my copy?

The truth is that these shoulds are all just thoughts. There is no requirement that you must answer every call from your family member in order to be a good sister. There is also no requirement that your boss respect you or appreciate you or even give you credit for your work.

Every adult human being on the face of this planet has the absolute right to act any way that they want.

Their “shoulds” probably don’t match your shoulds. They are not going to act how you want them or expect them to act, no matter how hard you try.

Despite this truth, we spend so much time and effort being frustrated and irritated that our husband isn’t taking out the trash or that our friend never answers her phone when we call her. Modern therapists will often tell you that you need to communicate your needs to these people so that they can rise up and satisfy your needs. While I agree that communication is essential for any healthy relationship, I also believe there is something much more nefarious about this approach.

Let’s be honest. The real reason we are so frustrated is because these people are not acting how we want them to act.

And even when we tell them how we want them to act, they don’t do it and then we really get pissed and the relationship tension skyrockets. The problem is that when we tell someone these are my needs and I would like you to satisfy them so that I can be happier with our relationship, we are giving them all of our power. If the theory underlying that request is true, we are all screwed because the only way we can be happy based upon that theory is if the other person does what we ask.

How has that worked out for you?

I’m guessing not very well. Humans don’t want to be controlled or manipulated so that others can feel a certain way and no one should have that much power over your happiness. When we take this approach, we are basically saying The only way I can be happy with our relationship is if you will change your behavior to align with my needs. This sure looks like manipulation’s closely related cousin. We are trying to change others’ behavior; we are trying to control them in order to be happy. That does not seem like a recipe for a healthy relationship.

The only person who can influence and control your happiness is you.

What is really swirling around in the background and driving these relationship disputes are a whole lot of shoulds. He should be more affectionate . . . my boss should be nicer when she gives me feedback . . . she shouldn’t talk down to me . . . He should know the trash needs to go out, etc. These shoulds form a framework, we call a manual. The reason we think all of these things is because we have a manual of how a husband/boss/co-worker/friend is supposed to act. We have all these expectations about how these relationships are supposed to work. What’s more is that we rarely communicate these manuals to the people in our lives.

One of the first things I recommend in order to improve your relationships with other humans in your orbit is to first be aware of all the shoulds passing through your brain. Write them down. Don’t judge yourself for having them – that’s really just another should prancing around: You shouldn’t be so critical/judgmental, whatever. It’s just not productive. Be honest and write down all those expectations and thoughts. Once you have a clear sense of your secret manuals, you can start evaluating whether or not each element of the manual is important to you. Is it really important to you to believe that your husband should send you flowers on your birthday? Why? What are you making it mean when he doesn’t? Are those thoughts valid? Are they serving you and your relationship? Do you like your reasoning?

Now, we are not preparing instructions for a mail-order human here; at this point we just focus on what is really important to us because once we know that we can decide how to communicate that to the people in our lives. That is why it is so critical to evaluate the importance of each element in your manual – if you are too embarrassed to communicate that to the person at issue, then it’s probably not that important.

Now, here is the really critical piece of it . . . if and when you decide to express your “manual” to the other person, that person has the absolute right to choose to meet those expectations or to choose not to meet those standards. That person has no obligation to change to fit into your manual.

As a human, they can choose to act in any way that they want to. Period.

At this point, the work begins: you must accept that this person can choose to disregard your manual and that their choice is their choice and does not mean anything negative about you. You get to choose to be happy about the relationship, even where the other person doesn’t fit your manual. You can choose to think that you spoke your peace and feel resolution in that regard but you must release any and all expectation relating to their actions.

You are responsible for your happiness. Not them.

Most people choose to express their needs and get angry when the other person doesn’t change to satisfy them. That never works out. If you don’t want to live your life experiencing that result over and over again, you must choose to be happy with the relationship as it is and accept the other person for who they are – not what you are desperately trying to mold them into. Think about it. How do you YOU feel when someone tries to get you to act in a way that you don’t want to or when someone tries to make you do something you don’t want to?

These “shoulds” are arbitrary and capricious expectations that we have created with our thoughts and that we can change.

For example, if you think My boss should not need to yell at me in the hallway in front of everyone. You can decide whether your expectations of your boss are important enough for you to discuss with him/her directly. Whether you have the discussion or not, just know that he does not have to change to fit into your model of a “good boss” and he probably won’t. He is acting just as he should – we know because that is how he is acting! He can choose to act in any way that he wants and he doesn’t need to change for your to feel better about your worth or skills.

The reason you feel crappy isn’t because of him yelling at you in the hallway. You feel crappy because of what you are making it mean when he yells at you. Because of what you are thinking about it – I am so embarrassed, everyone is judging me, everyone thinks I’m an idiot, I can’t believe he did that to me, everyone saw and is probably talking about it. Those thoughts are what are making you feel miserable. He can yell at you and you can have completely different thoughts that aren’t going to make you feel like crap – You must be a really sad human to treat other people like that . . . when I leave this firm, I hope you see how this played a role in my decision . . . you are just really stressed about your big client that just left . . . I am good at my job and everyone knows it . . . you are just being dramatic. The point is, you don’t have to make it about you and you don’t have to make it something negative.

If you can clean up your thoughts around other people and stop thinking about how they should be acting, you will stop caring so much about that manual. It won’t matter as much because you will find that there is nothing the other person can do that will impact your happiness – that power rests with you and you alone.

Now, just to be clear, I am not saying that you should just be a doormat and let other people treat you like crap. What I’m saying is that we need to clear all the shoulds and BS from our heads before can we can clearly evaluate a relationship and make a decision about whether we want that relationship in our life. If our discomfort around another human is all being driven by unspoken expectations and manuals, we have some work to do. This work will help you examine what’s really going on without all the drama. What is really going on with this person and why does it bother you so much? It is really that important? What am I gaining from maintaining that manual for this person? Are those expectations serving me and this relationship?

I promise you, the work you will do with the manual and other humans can transform your life and your happiness. Besides, it will absolutely be easier than trying to change everyone around you, right? We all carry manuals for the people in our lives. Work with me and let me break down those shoulds so your relationships can blossom.

Triage versus Prioritizing

According to Mahatma Gandhi, “Action expresses priorities.” Unfortunately, this is often lost in legal practice where our actions are rarely tied to priorities.

For better or worse, most days spent in corporate legal practice start off with good intentions and big plans about all the things we will accomplish that day. Then the train derails and we spend most of the day “putting out fires” and ignoring all of those best laid plans. While some of this may be the result of real client emergencies, more often than not, there is no real emergency.

No one’s life is on the line and no one’s business is going to implode if you don’t immediately respond to that email.

While this approach to practice can certainly be productive and earn some goodwill with important clients or powerful partners, it is not a zero sum game. Making every hysterical email or phone call from clients or partners a priority, will ultimately prevent you from focusing on the projects that are a priority, like that presentation you need to prepare for that conference next week.

In the end, the only one who pays for failing to set priorities and establish boundaries, is you, your career, and likely your clients.

Countless times, I allowed frantic emails from needy clients or intimidating partners derail my plans to focus on other, less exciting but important projects. Over time, I realized that there was part of me that was accomplishment driven. I craved the urge to please a partner or a client and I relished the opportunity to “make someone else’s life easier,” to be needed, to fix something, to alleviate someone’s stress, even if it was to my own detriment. I would spend an entire day running around with my hair on fire addressing every client emergency that showed up, all the while disregarding the new DOL regulations that sat on my desk. This was my job ,right, to help clients?! Not sit at my desk all day reading regulations? Then, inevitably, an important client or partner would ask me what I thought about the DOL’s new guidance and I would freeze, mentally abusing myself for not making time to read those damn regs.

We have all done this. Instead of doing the hard work (setting boundaries, reading those regulations, saying “no”) we choose the spotlight, we choose the emergency, we choose to pursue feelings of accomplishment driven by results. What we loose sight of when we do this are three critical lessons.

When you allow your client to dictate your priorities you create monsters.

There is such a skill as client management. Every client cannot be a priority and every client cannot expect you to drop everything for them all the time. Your time is limited and every single one of your clients deserves your focus and attention. Allowing the squeaky wheel to dictate your day is a disservice to your clients and creates unrealistic expectations. Once your client or partner is used to you being at their beck and call, they will expect it every time. They will never see you as a partner to them. You become much more like a high-priced pizza delivery driver—whatever they want, any hour of the day. That is exhausting.

Overtime, the enthusiasm that comes with pleasing that particular client or partner will wane and give way to passive aggression and shoddy legal work. So many times I saw young attorneys deliberately do crappy work just to get a certain partner off their back or to get a client to start using someone else.

In order to be a good lawyer (never mind an adult human) you need to be able to have open, honest and candid conversations with people, including the people who pay your bills.

By pretending you are comfortable with that imbalanced relationship and telling them you are able to help, when you really aren’t, is nothing more than manipulation. You are taking action in hopes of manipulating what they will think about you. You are hoping they will see you as reliable, dependable, responsive, smart, and necessary. You are acting dishonestly in hopes you can control what they think about you.

What would it be like to believe all of those things on your own? What would it be like to add honesty to that list?

In the long run, honesty will do more for the relationship than manipulation and bitterness. A good client relationship is not built around dishonesty and unwillingness to have the difficult conversations. It rarely ends well. Besides, if clients and partners see you as never busy and always able to jump on things for them, what message does that communicate to them about your value and skillset?

You are setting a dishonest precedent and setting your clients up for sub-par work.

When you are overwhelmed with work and that client or partner asks you Do you have a second or Can you get back to me on this later this afternoon or Can you get this back to me today and you say Yes…you are lying! Piling on more projects will not magically create more time to do the work. There are limits to what you can accomplish in a day. I’m not saying that you need to be rigid about your work schedule and refuse work left and right, my message is that you need to learn to be honest with those people who are depending upon you.

Be honest with yourself about your workload and your ability to meet all those expectations. Being honest with your clients and saying I have a conference call that is expected to take all afternoon, can I get it to you tomorrow morning is a perfectly reasonable response. Telling that partner I am on several deadlines today for XYZ client or ABC partner, I’m happy to reshuffle if they are okay with it but I would need to check is also an acceptable response.

Responding honestly, in this way shows your clients/partners that you are busy and in demand and are willing to problem solve to ensure they receive the best service.

So many times I agreed to do things that I didn’t have time for. When I showed up to the meeting or call, I was stressed, harried, distracted and bitter. That is not the appropriate space for providing great legal services.

Similarly, when I accepted too much work, the net result was that every project would get 60% of my effort and time because I didn’t have enough time to do it all 100%. The point is, if you don’t have time or it’s going to take some reshuffling to get things done, say so. By asking the question, you give your client the opportunity to regroup and reassess their own priorities. If you don’t ask, you end up providing hurried and frantic legal services to a client that believed you had adequate time to do it right. If it is rushed, they will know and your reputation will suffer accordingly.

I have heard so many clients and partners criticize associate work by saying They clearly rushed through this or They should never have accepted this project if they didn’t have time, which they evidently did not. This is not where you want to be. That trust is difficult to rebuild. Strive to be legal counsel that is honest and willing to troubleshoot with your clients to ensure they receive proper legal support. The best legal work does not occur at midnight after 10 cups of coffee; it happens when you give yourself space to be present and focused.

Consider whether you are using “emergencies” to distract yourself.

Many times when I was avoiding a particularly difficult project, I would catch myself creating emergencies and burying myself in more “important” things. If I was dreading those new regulations or delaying preparation of slides for a presentation, I would make anything else a priority. I would make ordering flowers for my secretary a priority – ANYTHING. I would take benign non-emergent client emails and dive into them as if they were multi-million dollar lawsuits instead of doing the work I had planned to do; the work I NEEDED to do but didn’t want to.

We all know the negative effects of procrastination so I won’t waste my key strokes, but here, the real issue is awareness. Are you even aware that you are manufacturing emergencies because you are avoiding something else?

As a grown human you are free to manage your workload however you see fit but don’t lie to yourself. If you are doing 1,000 other things because you are avoiding another project, be honest about it.

Don’t run around manufacturing fires, indulging in drama, and telling everyone how busy you are. Then when real projects stack up and the avoided project gets critical you fall apart bemoaning your workload and inability to meet your deadlines as you wallow in the mess that you created. Stop it. If you are deliberately avoiding something, own it and just know that you will probably regret it later. Don’t create drama around it and don’t act like you didn’t create this problem. Instead, consider what it would be like to flex that muscle that makes you sit down and do the hard things? I’m no soothsayer but I suspect that skill will get you much farther in life.

Instead of allowing each day’s emergencies to dictate your life, decide what projects or clients are a priority each day and stick to them. 

When something else comes up, ask yourself: Is this going to impede my ability to focus on my priorities? Is this going to yield as great of results for me and the firm as my priorities? What will I have to sacrifice if I say yes to this project? What negative consequence am I signing up for if I disregard my established priorities?  You may not always be in a place to control your workload but asking yourself these questions will help you to learn how to discern priorities from distractions so that when you do get the chance to control you desk, you will have honed that skill. It becomes even more essential as you grow to manage your practice as well as others.

In the end, the practice of law provides the opportunity to hone basic interpersonal skills. I support so many of my clients to hone these skills. Not only is setting and sticking to priorities a life-long asset but a byproduct of that skill is learning to be honest with your clients and coworkers and ultimately, yourself.

Need support setting boundaries and prioritizing? Schedule a free consultation with me and let’s start building that skill. Your mental health will thank you.