So… TV might not be the best place to learn about what life is really like inside a law firm, although many lawyers do work punishingly long hours, and the intense pressure is very real: depending on your field of practice, lives and huge amounts of money can be on the line. The intensity starts on the first day of law school, when you start competing for attention, awards, and positions to take you to partnership track. No wonder so many lawyers turn to alcohol and drugs, become depressed, or burn out.What can be done to prevent burnout?
Enter Anne Brafford. Anne left her equity partner position in order to focus on what it takes to thrive in the legal profession. She has put her findings into Positive Professionals, a book published by the ABA Law Practice Division. Although her primary focus is law, there are tidbits of wisdom in this research-based book for just about anyone who works in an organization where the stress mounts as people feel pressure to perform at ever-higher levels.
Brafford neatly takes her readers through definitions of workplace engagement, tying it to the creation of meaningful work. I really liked her section on “Change the Channel from Money to Meaning” where she acknowledges that law firms do need to turn a profit, but then explores how focusing employees on money as a final goal can increase selfishness and decrease engagement, compassion, and collaboration.Positive Professionals is also peppered with humor with Brafford’s “Skeptic Alarm” – a little cartoon balloon with a cynical expression that calls out what readers may be thinking. For example, with the section on money and meaning, Brafford takes a pause to address that “lawyers work hard and want to be paid well” and that this is entirely acceptable, but not at the cost of burnout. This realistic tone was refreshing.
Positive psychology practitioners will enjoy the many references to research on topics such as self-determination theory, positive emotions, and resilience. What Brafford does so well is make this research applicable to the busy world of legal firms in meaningful ways, through what she calls engagement narratives. She illustrates, for example, how meaningful it can be to prioritize client care. She also shows how to create a purpose-driven firm that includes profit.In the third part of Brafford’s book, she provides strategies that can bring these different engagement narratives to life, illustrating them with different types of law firms and different levels of legal practitioners. Non-legal professionals may find some of the legal terminology unfamiliar, but the situations and stresses will likely resonate with most readers.
My Favorite Engagement Narrative
Of the six different engagement narratives, my favorite was “I’m growing and capable.” In this narrative, Brafford draws on the research behind what it takes to develop mastery, and how to build skills and confidence. Importantly, she addresses the need for psychological safety, which is not always easy to come by in professional environments, where people may feel criticized endlessly and unwilling to make a mistake for fear of reprisals.Dweck’s growth mindset makes a star appearance here as well, and with the ever-changing legal and technological landscape, one would hope that lawyers and other professionals are open to growing and changing and learning. This is especially important when it comes to creating more well-being for lawyers, reducing the burnout rate, and increasing engagement for the benefit of their clients.
As an organizational development consultant and a leadership coach, I learned a lot from Brafford’s book, not just about the culture in law firms, but also about how professional organizations can directly apply the research of positive psychology to create better places to work for all employees. These businesses can do well financially by doing well at increasing well-being for their people. These two goals are not mutually exclusive. All it takes is a little knowledge, attention, and willingness to try something new.
Brafford, A. (2017). Positive Professionals: Creating High-Performing Profitable Firms Through the Science of Engagement. American Bar Association.
Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books.
Image Credits from Flickr via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
California Supreme Court courtesy of Shawn Calhoun
Skeptic? courtesy of fakesalt
Members of the VA State Bar courtesy of vsbphotos
Law library, Iowa state capital courtesy of akahawkeyefan