By Aaron H. Wallace, Esq.
Nobody’s birth certificate ends in Esq.
Every lawyer begins as a human being and, believe it or not, stays that way. We have emotions and we feel them as deeply as painters, poets, songwriters, or therapists do. Except that we’re apparently not as good at managing them.
Studies have shown that lawyers have exceptionally high IQ but below-average EQ (emotional intelligence quotient), which might explain the phone call you just got off of or your mediation last week.
Truth is, even the most emotionally well-adjusted lawyer has endless opportunity to put their coping skills to the test. The work we do is important. The stakes are high, and so are the standards. Our system is adversarial by definition, and just to enter the club requires three years of intense bell-curve competition. Each day brings new temptation to respond in anger, fear, frustration, dejection, or aggression.
Naturally, we know there’s a better way. It’s choosing the better way in the moment that proves so challenging.
This year’s Well-Being Week in Law closes with a focus on emotional well-being for lawyers, a subject that encompasses everything from anxiety and depression to Imposter Syndrome, grief, and guilt. I suspect it’s the grand finale for a reason. Emotions are undoubtedly central to the problems we’ve looked at earlier in the week: sleeplessness, stagnation, loneliness, personal frustration of purpose, and so on.
Recent scholarship has even considered whether emotional regulation should be considered a core competency for lawyers and judges. “Emotional regulation?” you ask, in an unwelcome flashback to Psychology 101? Well, it’s a science all its own, but let’s begin with the basics.
Feeling Emotions vs. Reacting to Them
Emotions are to some extent unavoidable and involuntary. But the way we respond to emotional stimulus is almost entirely within our control. It takes work. No one’s a master. But by thinking of situations in this bifurcated framework of stimulus and response, we can begin to identify and modify our patterns of behavior. This is the work of emotional regulation.
Step Outside of Yourself to Get an Objective Glimpse
Have you ever had the experience of hearing a colleague’s tale of utter outrage, only to quietly conclude that their offender wasn’t all that offensive?
Our emotions cloud us to objectivity. That’s where our good friend from law school, the Reasonable Person, comes into play. When you feel your emotions revving up inside, try to step outside yourself for a moment and see things as an impartial adjudicator would. We lawyers know well that there are two sides to every story, including our own.
Emotional Regulation Improves Your Experience, Your Client’s, and Your Colleagues’
Lawyering is an exercise in understanding others. Exercise means making repeated efforts over time. So the work of emotional regulation never really ends. It does get easier, though, to the benefit of everyone involved.
Emotionally regulated lawyers create a better client experience, perform better in negotiation and under pressure, and are generally held in higher esteem by their peers. Excellence and emotional well-being are truly sympatico.
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This post brings to an end our celebration of Well-Being Week in Law 2021, an initiative of the ABA and IWIL. But the fun doesn’t stop here! Check back next week for a special surprise to boost your well-being, plus additional resources (and free CLE webinars) debuting at FLMIC.com all month long!