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You're in the Army Now

Vivia Chen

April 18, 2011

Dan Bowling, who penned 10 Happy Tips for Lawyers for us last year, is again our guest blogger. A former head of global human resources for Coca-Cola Enterprises, he is a senior lecturing fellow at Duke Law School and teaches positive psychology in the master's program at the University of Pennsylvania. He can be reached at [email protected].

by Dan Bowling

Army Lawyers love war metaphors. They are constantly “doing battle,” “facing Armageddon,” or “donning armor.” Rhetorical flourishes aside, there are parallels between the life of a lawyer and that of a soldier. Actual combat is a different thing altogether, of course, but both occupations involve constant stress: Failure is not an option; only the mission matters; and family needs run a distant second.

The U.S. Army is doing something to address these pressures. It has started training its recruits to better adapt to that life emotionally and mentally. Lawyers should pay attention to its efforts.

In response to increased incidents of mental and emotional distress among troops facing repeated deployment, the Army started working with positive psychologists from the University of Pennsylvania in 2009 to teach resilience skills to the 1.1 million men and women in uniform. Using warrior-friendly terms like “mental toughness” and “battle-mind,” the program teaches techniques to reduce pessimism and anxiety--the building blocks of stress disorder.

A friend of mine, the famed psychologist Martin Seligman, one of the driving forces behind the effort, suggests in the April issue of The Harvard Business Review that resilience training can be as effective for business leaders as for military ones. What about lawyers? I asked Seligman. “Given the degree of negative emotion and awful events that lawyers deal with daily, I can think of no other profession that would benefit more from resilience training,” Seligman says.

Lawyers suffer from mental and emotional disorders at a rate far higher than that of their professional peer groups. Job satisfaction among lawyers is low, and associate turnover is high. Unemployment among recent law school graduates is at record levels. Yet few legal institutions seem seriously concerned about the well-being of lawyers. Why should they be? Law firms suffer no shortage of applications.

There are reasons to be concerned, however. Law is a profession, an important societal contributor; it should be concerned with the mental and emotional fitness of its membership. The profession has made some spotty efforts to address this issue. Some efforts fall into the category of “work-life balance” or morale-boosting. Other efforts seem downright silly: Yale Law School recently announced it will allow stressed students to check a dog out of the library to soothe nerves! 

The Army's resilience program provides a credible, straightforward training methodology, the principles of which can prove helpful in teaching lawyers to navigate professional ups and downs. And it doesn’t involve therapy dogs. 

Resilience training is based upon evidence that humans fall roughly into one of three buckets when faced with adversity:

1. Some crumble;

2. Some emerge unchanged; and

3. Some are strengthened by it.

In the last two decades, researchers have discovered there are teachable skills that can help people wind up in the two latter buckets, or “insulate them from depression,” in Seligman’s words. These skills are the core of the Army program. Here's how they can be useful for lawyers:

          • Develop awareness of personal strengths. The Army performs personality testing on participants and teaches soldiers how to align their personality strengths with their tasks, which help enhance performance. If your top strength is meticulous attention to detail while working ungodly hours, you will thrive as a Big Law associate.

         • Manage emotions. Out-of-control emotions help no one; they eat away at one’s mind and body. The program trains soldiers to recognize and balance emotions in themselves and those around them. This training could be useful for that partner who's walking into your office right now to bark about your billable hours.

         • Fight overly pessimistic thinking. “Worst-case scenario” planning is useful at times, especially in law and the military, but applying it to every situation is harmful. Chronic pessimism often leads to depression, so learning the difference between prudent risk management and persistent negativity is an important skill.

         • Build self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-motivation. The Army knows that to lead others, one must be able to lead oneself, so much of the program is focused on self-awareness and motivation. Many lawyers have been trained to please others--parents, professors, senior partners, clients, and judges. Unfortunately, this type of conditioning doesn't help when things don’t go as planned.

It is time for Big Law to incorporate training based on these principles into its associate orientation programs, or for interested individuals to pursue it on their own (check out The Resilient Factor by Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte). Whether a lawyer is at risk of developing an emotional disorder--and many are, if statistics are to be believed--or merely wants to develop additional skills to perform at his or her highest level, resilience training can help.

Lawyers, be Army-strong.


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As per Maxwell Maltz's great work "Psycho Cybernetics" , all the positive thinking and awareness of others is futile without a good positive self image. For those who do not know, he was a plastic surgeon who believed that in order to achieve excellence in his field, he must help patients change their inner self prior to changing the outward appearance.

Gotta love the Army!

Nicely stated.


It's not just lawyers that need this. Right now, almost everyone I know feels like they are war-torn and worn out.

This training not only increases resiliency, it can work to help you feel like a Champion again and help you CREATE a life of engagement and meaning for yourself and others.!

Don't let people brush it off so quickly. I am a US Air Force Academy Graduate, who also taught and coached there... I know this stuff works at creating Champions.

Seligman's work is good stuff and his credentials are first rate. Those quick to dismiss this work as not being relevant to Lawyers are likely those who believe that they thrive on stress and are in command of themselves and their environment. Those same people should perhaps consider asking their colleagues, friends and families for an honest appraisal.

This is good stuff. I cannot accept that we are nothing but our genetics. A positive frame of mind can be very helpful in accomplishing things that are not easy for us. To the cynics I ask: How is this pessimism working out for you?

Nothing new here. Same old stuff that was written in the 80s.

know your strengths. See Clifton book.

fight pessimism. See Seligman book that is decades old.

be aware and motivated. Go to self-help section of bookstores.

tell us something we don't know that is innovative.

While I subscribe to encouraging resilience in the workplace -- particularly important for professional women during the "brain drain" years -- I think the problem may also lie in the tired, outdated, last century war metaphor. We now live in a global community where individual responsibility, collaboration and innovation are more important than ever and silos need knocking down. War connotes sides and battles and victories and spoils. Maybe if we recast business in general and law in particular as solution-focused enterprises, we can avoid some of the "collateral damage./"

The purpose of a soldier is to defend his country. What is the purpose of a BigLaw lawyer if it's not to please the clients and help them profit (while earning a nice living for one's self)? There is of course nothing wrong with it. I'd be interested to know what specific self-awareness, self-regulation and self-motivation Mr. Bowling has in mind that a BigLaw lawyer should build.

Just what we need, more motivational psycho-babble in the work place.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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