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BE THANKFUL BUT NOT RESIGNED
This year, lawyers will celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday against a background of contraction and uncertainty in the legal industry. Many lawyers in practice areas hit hard by the crises in the real estate and financial services markets are frantically looking for other ways to use their skills - and support their families. Newly minted law students,
often carrying significant law school debt, wonder if they'll find work.
Associates who have been recently informed that they will not receive expected bonuses are wondering how long they'll have their jobs. Even attorneys in practice areas that are still busy are experiencing hardships. Some have arrived at their offices only to learn that their assistants have been "let go." There are fewer associates to help. Bonuses are unlikely. Compensation may decrease. 2009 may bring more layoffs. And the emphasis on billing hours has intensified.
THE SCIENCE OF GRATITUDE
Under the current circumstances it may be more important than ever to focus on those things for which you are thankful on Thanksgiving. Psychological research demonstrates that people who regularly cultivate gratitude experience a variety of psychological, interpersonal and physical benefits.
Gratitude includes acknowledging the good in your life and recognizing that the source of this goodness lies at least partly beyond you. Acknowledging your blessings in the face of hardship shifts your attention away from what you don't have. You may have lost your job, but thankfully you're surrounded by a loving family. You may be anxious about the future, but you can appreciate all that you have now: a moment of joyful play with a child, a client expressing appreciation for your assistance, the fact that you're alive and healthy on a crisp autumn day. When we cultivate gratitude we focus on and savor the small pleasures and common kindnesses we so often overlook in the busy-ness of our lives.
And in a profession so focused on individualism, gratitude reminds you that you are the beneficiary of the sacrifices, mentoring, support and guidance of others. Despite the prevalence of individually focused compensation systems, the fact is that no lawyer has accomplished her or his career goals without the help of others.
It's easy to feel helpless in the face of circumstances that just happen to you, like losing your job for economic vs. performance reasons. Being grateful is empowering because it involves taking control of your reaction to the events you cannot control. Bad things may happen to us but we can decide how to view and cope with them.
Cultivating gratitude means intentionally inspecting your life for the purpose of counting your blessings and considering to whom thanks are due. It involves a shift in mindset, from attention to what's been lost to recognition of the many contributions of others to your life. Gratitude requires stopping to reflect on the goodness in your life. At least for the moment, you stop taking things for granted. Even after extraordinary tragedy, people are able to be grateful. Consider the gratitude expressed by survivors
of September 11 toward the fire fighters who rescued them. Think of those citizens of New Orleans who felt so blessed to be re-united with family even after losing their homes and livelihoods.
People who intentionally focus on their blessings by writing them down each night report greater life satisfaction, fewer symptoms of physical illness, and higher levels of joy, optimism, energy, excitement, determination, enthusiasm and alertness. They experience less depression and stress, get more and better quality sleep, exercise more
and make more progress toward their goals. In addition, grateful people are more likely to be generous to others, creating a positive cycle of reciprocal kindness.
Every lawyer I have coached who decided to keep a gratitude journal has been grateful they began this practice. The practice of law is difficult under even the best of circumstances and cultivating gratitude can improve the quality of a lawyer's life.
At the same time that I encourage you to intentionally focus on your blessings, I want to caution you about the potential dangers of becoming overly grateful. A recent coaching conversation with a woman lawyer left me thinking about this. As a non-equity part-time partner in a large firm she needed to develop her own book of business in order to advance in her career. She worked primarily for a male senior partner who took 100% of the origination credit for all work that came in from a large client in
spite of the fact that she had significantly expanded the work from this client and was the responsible attorney on all of their work. Moreover, the firm had a policy requiring credit-sharing under these circumstances. When I encouraged her to try to negotiate with the senior partner she refused, insisting that she was so grateful for her balanced hours schedule she did not want to "rock the boat."
I'm hearing more and more of this from women lawyers since the economy has soured. It is especially worrisome on the context of NAWL's 2008 survey findings that the percentage of women equity partners is still stalled at 16% and that women lawyers earn less than their male counterparts at every level with the largest discrepancies among male and female equity partners.
WOMEN LAWYERS MUST NOT BE RESIGNED
As important as it is to be thankful for their blessings, women lawyers must not allow fears of rocking the boat to lead them to become resigned about gender inequities. It is more urgent than ever that women be clear about the value they bring to their clients and their firms. The economy is not expected to rebound quickly. Firms that have implemented work/life policies primarily for recruiting purposes and in which women continue to be stigmatized for choosing reduced-hours schedules will have little reason
to continue these practices in the face of significant drops in profitability. Partners working full-time are likely to become increasingly resentful toward lawyers they see as not pulling their weight. As firms become more leanly staffed, pressure for increased productivity is already mounting. Unless a firm has a culture of genuine commitment to the advancement of women and to the well-being of its attorneys, providing high profits for partners will override advances in work/life policies. Although job-sharing and flexible schedules are a rational alternative to layoffs, there is little evidence that the industry is moving in this direction. Under times of stress, we all have a tendency to fall back upon old habits.
Cultivating gratitude is vital for maintaining optimism and focus on goals in the face of hard times. But I urge women lawyers to be willing to rock the boat when it serves their best interests. No one should be so grateful for programs that simply balance the playing field that they fail to advocate for themselves. Be grateful and gracious, but don't be resigned. Provide value to your workplace and be very clear about the value you provide. Be willing to remind others of your value and advocate for yourself as you would for your client. If you're uncertain about your ability to do this effectively, reach out for help. But don't settle for less than you've worked so hard to deserve.
A FINAL NOTE
My deepest thanks to our 4000 subscribers for your ongoing interest and feedback. I hope you can use this holiday to acknowledge many blessings and to give thanks to the people who have contributed to the good in your life.
1. Emmons, Robert A. (2007) Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier. New York: Houghton Mifflin
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