Insecurity Delays

When you start your legal career, you enter a period in your life when the metrics aren’t clear and feedback is few and far between. It is often difficult to know if you are doing a good job; however, it is rarely difficult to know if you aren’t doing a good job–that type of feedback is readily provided.

So in a profession where the only feedback you typically get is negative feedback, how do you keep those experiences from making you paranoid?

In today’s blog we focus on getting clear on where negative feedback fits in your life and how to keep it from bogging down your best work.

You are practicing law. You are doing the hard thing. You might feel like you are operating blindly, unsure if that last email you sent made any sense or addressed the appropriate legal issues. Projects are submitted and become part of a vast cone of silence. It is often difficult to know whether that silence is an indication of your failure or a silent thank you for a job well done. In the midst of this silent treatment, you periodically receive some feedback. Negative feedback.

That shouldn’t have take that long.

This shouldn’t have been that hard.

You missed an important issue.

You clearly did not understand the scope of the project.

You completely missed the point.

When many of us receive that feedback and when that is the ONLY feedback we receive, it breeds an odd form of professional paranoia. We know that we didn’t do a good job in those particular instances but we don’t have any clarity on when we HAVE done a good job. It’s like being blindfolded and sent to navigate a minefield. It’s no wonder that this type of consistent negative feedback, without more, makes it difficult to get back on the horse. Usually the result is that we spend more and more time agonizing over every minute detail of every later project hoping that we are getting better at anticipating the mines. The delightful insecurity delay!

We take that negative feedback and camp out with our self-created paranoia.

While we would like some positive feedback, we would almost prefer the silence than the sudden, surprising criticism, like a slap in the face. When we live in that paranoia, projects take longer and our brain becomes filled with self-doubt and negative chatter. It’s hard to focus on the task at hand in between beating yourself up for your mistakes and worrying that you are about to mess up again. The natural result is that we spin in this insecurity, take longer to get simple tasks done, and start to cower in fear of any future mistakes. (The mistake spiral.)

When your work is greeted with silence punctuated only by negative feedback, it can be difficult to be confident. In order to dig out of this pit, you have to start pursuing additional facts and facing some new realities.

You are not perfect. You will never be perfect. No one else in your professional orbit is perfect.

The first step in getting through insecurity is to get your head out of your @$$ and get some perspective. You are not perfect and neither is anyone around you. We all make mistakes in our practice and we all especially make mistakes when we were just starting out. Do not allow yourself one F-ing moment to believe anything else. No one has it easier than you — what does that even mean?! — and everyone is learning. You are not a special snowflake. You will make mistakes just like everyone else. Get over it.

Seek and ye shall receive!

Recognize that lawyers are busy myopic beings. We focus on the dumpster fire at hand and leave little room for much else. That means that normal, professional courtesies go out the window. Providing constructive feedback is not likely at the top of their priority list so if you want more constructive feedback, you are going to have to ask for it. You are not at the mercy of your bosses or your work. Constructive feedback is not parade candy — you don’t have to sit back and hope that they throw some your way. Get out there and rip the candy out of their miserly little hands! When you receive negative feedback, it is perfectly acceptable to ask if there were other aspects of the project that DID go well that you can continue to improve upon.

Schedule periodic check-ins following/during large projects to see how you are doing.

Ask the questions — am I on par with where you would want me to be? Are there areas where I excel? What other areas can I improve upon?

If you don’t start taking ownership of your career and asking for the type of feedback that you want, you will be left in a vacuum of negative feedback and nothing more. You will be at the mercy of your bosses’ individual experiences–whatever is happening in their lives behind the scenes that may or may not play a role in the ass-chewing you just received. You have to seek out more information. You have to seek out both sides of the story. Remember that we all have a bias toward negativity so you are going to have to work to gather information on the other side of the story.

Any feedback is a sign of their investment in you

Focus on the fact that they are giving you feedback; it is a sign that they are invested in your growth and improvement. The only time I withheld feedback — negative or positive — was when I had concluded that the attorney was a lost cause, a bad fit. If they are giving you feedback it means they know you can improve. At some level they believe in you. Do not overlook that fact.

Be honest with yourself

When you find yourself reeling after some negative feedback and it is making it difficult to execute any task, start focusing on your internal self-talk. Listen to the things you are telling yourself. Ask yourself why you are having a hard time moving forward. Usually it sounds something like this: You can’t mess up again; he thinks you’re idiot; how did you miss that? What the hell happened?  You are never going to do a good job from that headspace. If your friend had received the same feedback, would you let them talk to themselves the same way?

If the reason you aren’t sending that email is because you are afraid of messing up again — send the damn email. Do not let your fear of more negative feedback impede your success. Accept that negative feedback is part of it and allow yourself to be open to the possibility that you are, in fact, good at your job — if you weren’t, you wouldn’t be there. Recognize that the reason you aren’t sending the email, finishing the project, whatever is, is because you are afraid. Is that a good reason to delay? Do you feel good about letting some vibration in your body (fear) keep you from doing your best work?

Recognize your fear and your negative self-talk and start being honest with yourself about where your real work lies. When you allow negative feedback to paralyze you it’s because of what you are making that feedback mean about yourself. It means that you have more work to do.

Get support

Whether you sign up to work with me or not, the fact of the matter is that we all need support to do hard things. From professional athletes to CEOs, they all have a support team. Find yours. Whether it’s a mentor, an affinity group, or a close friend, find someone who will help you keep a clear perspective on things. Free support is available all around you. Find it and stop twisting in the wind.

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Are They Freezing You Out?

When it comes to employee relations, law firms are among some of the worst employers. HR is typically impotent in addressing issues amongst attorneys so the rules of the game are largely left to the players.  In lieu of actual feedback, it seems that most firms opt for obstinate silence and the good ‘ol freeze out in lieu of actually providing constructive feedback.

Over the years, many firms have beefed up their periodic review process as a nod to HR that they do, in fact, need to actually address performance with their attorneys at SOME point. Even when those meetings occur, oftentimes the feedback is light and airy unless and until a decision has been made that you need to find the door. Then suddenly, the feedback shifts and years of evidence to support your shortcomings are lain before you  for the first time.

I have heard these stories so many times from my clients and I have witnessed them first hand with colleagues, associates, clerks, and friends. The legal industry is notoriously terrible at providing good feedback at the right times. Usually, when an associate is struggling they are left to twist in the wind. And when the powers that be have given up on an associate, they simply freeze them out. Suddenly there is no more work for them and the review discussions become focused on the lack of work and low hours. Eventually those performance metrics form the basis for the breakup.  A real discussion about the performance issues rarely occurs.

So what do you down when you sense that you are getting roped into this long goodbye?

Get very clear on what is happening.

Make a list of everyone you have asked for work and their responses (or lack of responses). At all times in your practice, you have to  be prepared to be your best advocate! That means you are going to need to document your efforts to fill your plate as well as evidence when all of those efforts have been rebuffed. This exercise will also help you get clear on whether your imagination is running wild or things are starting to get a bit chilly at the office.

Take a hard look at your performance.

Go back through each of your working relationships and examine projects that did and didn’t go well. Be honest with yourself. Take a look at those email strings where a project got off the rails — did you miss something critical that you shouldn’t have? Were the parameters of the project clearly communicated? Did you rush through the memo and forget to spell check? Take an inventory of your work and be sure to include your wins. Did you handle all the client interfacing on that last deal? Did you successfully apply what you learned in earlier projects?

Having a clear view of your performance will not only arm you for a performance discussion, it will help you see things from their point of view. You may have to ask yourself — am I not living up to my potential? Are they right? Do I need additional support?

Have the discussion.

Do the hard thing and have those conversations that are being withheld from you. For each key relationship, prepare a summary of your performance. Be sure to include both WINS and LOSSES. Remember that as humans, we have a bias toward the negative. Your attorneys might only be focused on the last mishap and might be forgetting all the other good things you have done. REMIND THEM! The goal of this meeting is threefold:

  • Tell them what you have accomplished.
  • Acknowledge where you have room for growth.
  • Tell them where you would like to improve and present your plan for improvement (be sure to invite their support as well).

This is not a place to defend yourself or make excuses. This is a time to take ownership of where you are–what have you succeeded at and where is there room for growth. This is a space for you to re-communicate your investment in the work, in the team, and in your growth.

An example of how this conversation might go is this: I want to thank you for the opportunity to visit with you. I’ve been taking an inventory of my work and I wanted to get your input and support on how I can take my work to the next level. Over the past six months, I have really gained a better understanding of how a deal evolves from beginning to end. I was really able to take my experiences on Project Zero and apply them to our last deal which really streamlined the diligence process. I can see that sometimes I have a tendency to rush through things and respond too quickly without taking the time to fully understand the issues or ask follow-up questions. I am working to balance my desire to be responsive with my goal of gaining a deeper understanding of the big picture. I’ve only been doing this work for two years and I know I have so much more to learn. I would really like to focus on learning more about the structure of the deal and the parties involved so I can start getting a better understanding of how my work fits into the whole. I think if I could participate in the earlier project discussions with the client, that would help me see the big picture. I would appreciate any feedback you might have to help me improve my contribution to the team.

Lawyers are busy. We focus on what is in front of us and that is typically it. Scheduling time for this discussion will force them to focus on YOU. It’s easy to be annoyed with an associate when you are in the heat of deal. It’s easy to be dismissive when you are stressed. When an associate proactively schedules time to discuss their performance and their career, it forces us to all take a hard look at how we have been treating you and how we have been (not) supporting you.

Be sure to schedule the discussion during a time when things are low stress (as much as possible). You want your attorneys to have space from those challenging projects to see clearly their role in the relationship as well.

Remind them of how long you have been doing the work and recognize that you have room to grow. As partners, we often forget how long you have been working as an attorney and it can be jarring to be reminded what level you are at. I often overestimated how long associates had been doing the work and realized I had been setting way too high of standards for newly minted attorneys. We forget how hard the work is and we forget how little we knew coming out of law school. Sometimes, it was helpful to be reminded of that by my associates and clerks.

This conversation might yield a significant change in your relationship or it might fall flat. Either way, this is a fact-finding mission. This is your best opportunity to figure out whether you are being frozen out; to ask for the feedback they are withholding from you. If the conversation is an utterly waste of time, simply document it and continue on with your other discussions. If you are asking for feedback and support and guidance and it is not being given to you, that is an important fact to discuss with others in your circle. Difficult conversations are the key to a successful career. Use this as an opportunity to start honing that skill.

Whether they like it or not, law firms need associates to function and associates want feedback and guidance. Law firms cannot afford to have mid-level and senior attorneys freezing out their associates and driving turnover. Force these conversations and document your results. Use those exercises as more evidence of your commitment in later conversations with other attorneys.

This is your career. You are not a victim. If they are freezing you out, take active steps to understand what is going on. The worst thing you can do is allow them to force you out without gathering all possible learnings from the experience. Work to gather information about your performance so that you can use that information to continue to improve and develop, whether it’s at that firm of the next.

Taking ownership and control of your career is at the foundation of my work. If you are concerned about your future at your firm, sign up for a free session so we can strategize and get you back in the driver’s seat.

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Feeling Defensive

As lawyers, it is our job to be right. To get the right answer, to find the right solution, to have the right words. In truth, you could say that about any profession, unless you are a meteorologist (no one is ever surprised when they are wrong). No one likes to be wrong.

Many of my clients struggle with being wrong because of what they make that mean about themselves. If they are wrong, it must mean they are not good enough, they aren’t cut out to be lawyers.

I recently had a mini-session with a young attorney who was telling me about her horrible work environment. When I asked her to give me an example of how her horrible boss had berated her, she said that he told her the memo she prepared for him was terrible and that she completely missed one of the most important legal issues. “What were you thinking?!” he had said to her. And. She. Was. Pissed.

How could he speak to me like that? I don’t deserve to be treated like that. He completely embarrassed me in front of all my colleagues.

As we talked about it, I asked her to answer this question: what exactly she was thinking when she turned in the memo? I just wanted it to be over with. I hate working for him. It as a terrible legal issue and I just wanted to be done with it. The more we discussed it, we discovered that the memo was not great, was not well thought out, and she had, in fact, missed an important legal issue. Everything this partner had said to her was true.

When we feel ourselves getting defensive, the most important question you can ask yourself before you explode on the other human is this:

Are they right?

Is it true?

If it is true, what am I making that mean about myself and why?

Whenever we are feeling defensive, it is because you believe that part of whatever criticism you just received is true. If it wasn’t true, at least in part, it wouldn’t bother you.

If someone were to say to me, That article you wrote for the paper last week was pretty terrible, it wouldn’t bother me. I wouldn’t care because I didn’t write an article for any paper. There is no truth in that statement for me. It doesn’t resonate with me at all.

However, if someone were to say to me, You and your partner should have kids, you’re going to regret it, my hair would practically start on fire. That hits a mark because it hits on thoughts and doubts that I have had about my life. It challenges decisions I have made and second-guessed. There is a possibility that, some day, I might regret our decision not to have kids. It hurts because I have grappled with and questioned the truth of that exact statement.

For many of us, when people hurl these types of comments at us, we ignite. We get defensive, we get angry and indignant.

The reason we are defensive is because we see that fleck of truth and we don’t like what that means: it reminds us that they might be right.

For my client, acknowledging the truth of what her partner said meant owning the fact that she didn’t do a good job. When she opened herself up to that possibility, what quickly followed was the conclusion that she was not cut out to be lawyer. She just wasn’t good enough. She was never going to make it. Those thoughts made her feel hopeless and scared.

Instead of working through those ugly thoughts resulting from the truth of the statement, we resist all of it.

We push it back onto the other person. We try to argue that what they said wasn’t true. It is always easier to be angry and defensive than admit our faults.

If we allow the other person to be right, at least, in part, we have to examine what that means for ourselves. What are you making it mean when you do a sub-par job at work? What are you making it mean when you regret a decision you made years ago?

Most of us make those mistakes mean something terrible about ourselves. We allow ourselves to conclude that we are bad people, less than, failures. Defensiveness and anger are a means to avoid those thoughts and feelings. It is a way to cover them up and distract from what you are really feeling and thinking about yourself.

Life is yin and yang, good and bad.

If you can take full ownership of the uncomfortable parts of life, acknowledge and accept when we mess up, how much easier would life be? What if we could mess up and not torture ourselves for it?

So how do you stop this cycle? First, whenever you feel yourself getting defensive, stop and recognize the parts of the criticism that you believe; recognize the critical thoughts you have had before.

Second, recognize that you are making your failures mean something terrible about yourself. You are beating yourself up every time you aren’t perfect. That is the root of your avoidance. It is why you are getting angry and defensive.

If you can allow yourself to fail gracefully and simply own it when you mess up and not make it mean something negative about yourself, there is nothing to avoid. There is no reason to be angry or defensive.

Could you imagine how my client’s relationship with that partner would change if she was able to respond, “You know what, you’re right, I can do better than this. I apologize and I will use this as a learning experience.”

Commit to believing that every failure is simply one more step on your path to figuring things out. Each time you mess up is another opportunity to learn and grow.

It’s what makes you human and being human means you are never going to be perfect.

How many relationships have we contaminated by being defensive when we knew, deep down, we were in the wrong but didn’t want to admit it?

How many times did we allow our mis-steps to be fodder for self-deprecation?

Stop doing that to yourself. You are a human and that means you come equipped with a certain level of imperfection. Instead of resisting your imperfections, own them, accept them as a part of life and love yourself regardless. Do not resist them and cover them up with anger and defensiveness. It’s not serving you and it’s not true.

Need support? Sign up for a free consultation and take the first step to cleaning up your relationship with yourself and those around you.

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The Mistake Spiral

The most common thing I see among associate attorneys is the fear of making mistakes.

As attorneys, we can become so paranoid about making a mistake that we put a tremendous about of pressure on ourselves. Our minds are filled with nonstop nasty chatter:

Don’t make another mistake

You have to get this right

This has to be perfect this time

You can’t miss anything this time

They all think you are an idiot

Maybe you shouldn’t have become a lawyer

You don’t have what it takes

Not only are you frustrated over the last mistake but now all that noise makes it even more difficult to focus and do a good job.

As a partner, I always knew when an associate was spinning in this fear. They were taking longer to do everything. They were agonizing over the smallest details. The result of all their mental berating was that they usually ended up missing the big picture and billing a ton of time in the process. What’s more, those associates rarely reached out for help before they got too deep. It was incredibility frustrating.

When you spin in self-doubt, self-judgment and pressure to do everything perfectly, you are demonstrating to those around you that you have some doubts about your ability to do it right. When you allow one mistake to send you into a tailspin, it makes it difficult for those around you to have confidence that you believe in your abilities; that you can handle feedback or that you can operate under pressure.

What’s more, that self-doubt spiral convinces you that you can’t reach out and ask questions for fear that it will affirm to others that you DON’T know what you are doing. You end up going down rabbit holes and over-analyzing the wrong details. Ultimately, everyone’s time is wasted and the project drags on.

How’s that working out for your work relationships or your confidence?

It is a never-ending death spiral of self-fulfilling prophecies.

What’s so interesting to me is that below the surface of all these thoughts and pressure is the belief that this path was easier for everyone else. That others didn’t struggle as much as you are.

Why are you choosing to believe that your struggles are special?

Why are you allowing your growth and development to be a sign that you are broken?

Consider the possibility that those around you similarly struggled. You don’t know that they didn’t yet you are CHOOSING to believe that is the case.

At this point in your career, I think we can ALL agree that law school doesn’t teach you how to be a lawyer. Your legal education was no different than anyone else’s. All attorneys wander the morass and confusion fog for YEARS before it clicks. You are not special in this regard!

The root of all those self-doubts and mistake spirals is the ultimate fear of failure. Below each overworked project and overly analyzed email is the fear of what it means when you make a mistake. And further, what it means if you keep making mistakes:

You can’t hack it.

You weren’t meant to be an attorney.

You made a mistake.

You shouldn’t be here.

That sneaky little worry is bubbling below the surface of all of those self conscious acts. You are afraid that those mistakes, when taken in total, are an indication that you can’t do this. From there, you build up these crazy expectations of perfection and try to think clearly and rationally from a place of frenzied panic and tremendous pressure.

It’s no wonder you keep making mistakes! How the hell are you supposed to do a good job when all you are thinking about is how you aren’t doing a good job? It’s madness!

Perfectionism is for scared people.

Repeat that phrase. Live it. Breathe it. Believe it.

When you try to mold yourself into some perfect “out-of-the-box” ready to perform, legal wizard you are setting yourself up for failure.

Law school does not prepare you to practice law. Welcome to the first phase of your life where there are no clear guidelines, metrics are fuzzy, and you have to just start trusting that you are doing it right.

Stop beating yourself up for signing up for the “on site” education that is the practice of law. That is how it works. Allow yourself to experience the process of learning on the job just like every associate attorney on the planet.

One small mistake does not mean that you are not cut out to be a lawyer. Do not let that mistake stoke the fires of fear and propel you into a frenzy.

You are a human. You will mess up.

Welcome to the party.

You want to do a good job and you want to improve and that is commendable. But first, you must do a good job for yourself. Honor the process of on-the-job development. Recognize that you don’t know it all and THAT IS OKAY. No one does.

Second, ditch your ridiculous expectations for yourself and get to work learning how to trust yourself and your judgment despite some bumps in the road.

Besides, what’s the alternative?

Where is all this worrying and fear getting you? What does it hurt to loosen up a bit and just keep rolling with the punches and using each mistake as a learning opportunity? An opportunity to honor yourself, have your own back, and learn.

The only thing you are learning when you continually run the cycle of negative self-talk is how to treat yourself terribly.

There isn’t room for much more and there certainly isn’t room left for growth. Recognize where your current patterns are leading you and decide if that is what you want. The choice is yours.

I help my clients get more confidence, roll with the punches, and have some compassion for themselves. Sound like something your practice is missing? Get some free support now and see what we can do together.

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