Adopting an infinite mindset will benefit law firms and lawyers

Much of a lawyer’s stress and anxiety comes from finite thinking, argues Daniel Lo

Daniel Lo

When anyone asks a lawyer how they feel about their job, more often than not the resounding response is “I'm so stressed” — not surprising given the lightening pace at which law is practised these days and the need to always be “on.”

The legal profession has seen an unprecedented increase in reports of mental health and wellness issues: anxiety, depression and substance abuse have become commonplace. A study of American lawyers by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission found that the highest incidence of alcohol abuse, depression and anxiety can be found in lawyers in their first 10 years of practice.

Why are young lawyers feeling this way? Some point to the fact that lawyers tend to be Type-A driven perfectionists, and that perfection is never attainable in a law practice. As well, those that succeed are generally told not to show vulnerability and to “grind it out,” as responsibilities and pressure will only increase with time. Overall, the fear of failure and the pressure to always be performing above and beyond is taking its toll and is unsustainable in the long term.

Stress and anxiety may well be part and parcel of the lawyer’s role. But as New Age-y as it sounds, I believe that it is in the best interests of an employer to foster a trusting and safe (dare I say fun?) work environment whereby young lawyers feel comfortable enough to let their guard down and know that their employers have their back. In turn, these same lawyers will not fear work, and will develop a loyalty towards the law firm that takes care of them.

Lawyers would do well to stop thinking in finite terms and start adopting an infinite mindset in order to alleviate some of the stresses in our day-to-day work.

Finite versus infinite game

In a previous column I explained why law firms should identify the “why” of their practice in order to attract and keep young lawyers. In this column I once again draw from author Simon Sinek and his most recent book The Infinite Game. In life, there are two games that we play: finite and infinite. Finite games exist when there are at least two players, the players are known, the rules are fixed and there is an agreed-upon objective that signals the end of the game when achieved. For these games there is always a beginning, a middle and an end.

An infinite game is played by known and unknown players and there are no exact or agreed-upon rules,  though there are general frameworks within which players must play. Infinite games have infinite time horizons, with no end to the game, as the primary objective for players is to continue playing and perpetuate the game. To this end, there is no “winning” an infinite game.

For example, you can’t win the practice of law, even though many lawyers and law firms purport to be the “best” and “top-ranked.” Yet the rules for how one judges “top-ranked” varies from publication to publication, law firm to law firm; you get the picture. In an infinite game such as the practice of law, the game continues indefinitely and will see new entrants in the form of newly minted lawyers, and existing players who drop out due to retirement, death, and unmanageable stress and anxiety.

If longevity in the game is the objective, then why are we pushing lawyers to the point of exhaustion and creating toxic environments that are harmful to their mental well-being? Wouldn’t a physically and mentally healthy lawyer benefit a law firm’s longevity more than a revolving door of disgruntled and disillusioned lawyers?

What can law firms do?

That law firms place such a high regard on near-term results such as billable hours, utilization and realization rates means they employ any strategy or tactic to achieve these numbers at the expense of the lawyer’s wellbeing. This is finite thinking. Law firms must adopt infinite thinking by focusing on people first.

Each law practice will be different in how it implements an infinite mindset, whether by creating meaningful mentorship opportunities with junior and senior lawyers, implementing non-billable key performance indicators that track a lawyer’s outside interests such as continuing education and pro bono engagement, or even by simply checking in on them to see how they are doing. Most effective, though, is to develop a purposeful “why,” so that young lawyers come to work inspired, recognizing that millennial lawyers want their work to have a purpose, to contribute something to the world and to be proud of their employer.

What can I do?

From law school we have been taught to play finite games well and to always be winning; but real life is not like this at all. Stop trying to “win” at everything; by no means will you lose at law if you are not consistently performing at 100 per cent. Your legal career is an ongoing infinite game. As long as you are improving and learning and giving your best to yourself, your team and your firm today, carry on! The objective is to persist, and continue in the infinite game. Stop focusing on short-term wins and look to your infinite objective of being a purpose-driven, happy and balanced lawyer.

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