News Post

Developing and Maintaining Mental Strength as an Attorney

By: Erik Heninger, Heninger Garrison Davis, LLC

Traditionally, success in the legal profession demands long hours, resolving complex legal problems, maintaining relationships and managing high levels of stress and anxiety. Now, with a nod to COVID-19 and the global response, there are the added challenges of working remotely, juggling family/personal responsibilities and, for some, the day-to-day education of our children. To put it mildly, achieving success in today’s environment can be difficult. Meeting these obligations and responsibilities every day takes a toll on our physical, mental and emotional energy. Failing to develop and maintain our mental strength can lead to failure, burnout, discouragement, fatigue, stress and more.

To further confirm these struggles, a 2016 study by the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs surveyed attorneys and found:

  • 21 to 36 percent of lawyers qualify as problem drinkers;
  • Approximately 28 percent of lawyers are struggling with some level of depression;
  • Approximately 19 percent are struggling with anxiety.

To survive and thrive, attorneys must maintain mental strength. However, the term “mental strength” is amorphous. Mental strength involves regulating emotions, managing thoughts and behaving in a positive manner regardless of the circumstance.

It’s more than will-power. Mental strength is establishing healthy habits and choosing to devote our time and energy to improving ourselves. Life’s obstacles – in any form – will occur. How we respond to these events could express our mental strength.

The good news? No matter who you are, what you’ve been told, or what you believe, you can develop the mental strength needed to succeed. Many exercises exist to help you develop mental strength. Here are four to get you started:

1. Develop a Positive Mindset: To increase mental toughness and manage stress, one of the first things to do is focus on building a strong, positive mindset in everyday life. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the average person has 60,000 thoughts per day. Of those, 95% of those thoughts repeat each day and, on average, 80% of repeated ideas are negative.

The weight of these negative thoughts is like swimming with a bag full of rocks. Swimming is hard enough on its own, but having additional burdens weighing you down is a recipe for failure.
Sometimes, building mental toughness isn’t as much about building new strength as it is about saving your strength for the right tasks. Dumping the rocks out of the bag instead of trying to get strong enough to carry the extra weight would seem to be the better approach.

2. Plan for Setbacks: Developing a strong mindset and maintaining mental strength isn’t simple. Those who’ve achieved success know obstacles, setbacks, and failure are inevitable, and we’re no different.

As you set about to achieve your goals, you will face many ups and downs, but this doesn’t mean you don’t have mental toughness, willpower, or discipline. It simply means you’re experiencing the human condition.

When you find yourself in a low spot, instead of giving up right away, ask yourself these questions:

  • “Am I being too hard on myself?”
  • “Are negative thoughts distorting my view?”
  • “What’s the positive side of this setback/obstacle/failure?”
  • “Why was this goal important to me? What was my purpose?”
  • “Is this goal still important to me?”

Asking yourself questions is a great way to check in on your mindset. When we get lost in negative thinking or lose connection to our purpose, it’s far too easy to become discouraged.

3. Step Out of Your Comfort Zone: Possessing mental strength doesn’t mean you don’t experience emotions. Mental strength requires you to learn of your emotions so you can make the best choice about how to respond. Mental strength is about accepting your feelings without being controlled by them.

Mental strength also involves an understanding of when it makes sense to behave contrary to your emotions. For example, if you experience anxiety that prevents you from trying new things or accepting new opportunities, try stepping out of your comfort zone to continue to challenge yourself. Tolerating uncomfortable emotions takes practice, but it becomes easier as your confidence grows.

Practice behaving like the person you’d like to become. Instead of saying, “I wish I could be more outgoing,” behave in a more outgoing manner, whether you feel like it or not. Some discomfort is often necessary for greater gain, and tolerating that discomfort will help make your vision a reality, one small step at a time.

4. Manage Stress: Stressed before a hearing or trial? Try techniques like meditation or progressive muscle relaxation — in which you consciously relax each muscle group, from your toes to your head. Channeled the right way, stress can be your ally right before any performance. Not all stress is bad. The fight or flight response can raise your awareness and attention.

Positive stress (excitement) and negative stress (anxiety) have the same physical effects. Your heart rate and breathing go up. Your pupils dilate.

The difference is how you experience these effects. If excitement before an event gets you amped up, that’s good. If it’s tipping you into panic, that’s bad. Remember that when you feel stress building, you have some control over how to interpret it.

5. Foster Collegiality: The practice of law necessitates confrontations cloaked as “arguments.” To protect the institution and its participants, these arguments should be presented in a civil and respectful manner. Chronic incivility depletes the legal profession’s most valuable resource—its people. Collegiality fosters the feeling that the work environment is trusting, respectful and a safe place to take risks. When lawyers don’t feel psychologically safe, they are less likely to seek or accept feedback, experiment, discuss errors, and to speak up about potential or actual problems.