What Is the Leading Lawyers Confidence Crisis?
Lawyers now work in a more distanced environment than ever, with less access to the support networks that were once a daily fact of their careers. Compounded by a wave of resignations and greater pressure to perform at their utmost, many senior lawyers face a heavy mental burden – particularly those aspiring to partnership.
Together with wellness coach Charlène Gisèle Bourliout, we discuss what can be done to address this growing confidence crisis.
You have spoken before about a ‘confidence crisis’ among the legal profession. Can you please tell us more about this?
The Confidence Crisis is one of the most under-recognised concerns in the legal profession at the moment. It first became apparent when I was coaching legal professionals to overcome burnout. I started to see similarities in the concerns my clients would tell me, which all focused on a loss or erosion of inner confidence coupled with increased performance anxiety. Once I had addressed the burnout concerns, the next hurdle for my clients to reach peak personal and professional performance was to address their ‘confidence crisis’.
The confidence crisis can be challenging to spot, as so many suffering from it are outwardly successful but battling a crisis of confidence inside, often on their own and feeling quite lonely or even ‘embarrassed to admit it’ while going through it. The last few years have also exacerbated the issues, as many feel more isolated from their peers and navigate more uncertain times than ever.
Their meaningful networks that would previously provide feedback are shrinking. The growing distance between colleagues creates an environment where law professionals are unsure they are making the right decisions, which has only been made worse with The Great Resignation, which led to depleted teams. Many legal professionals are putting in a lot of effort to maintain poise and composure on the outside, but are faced with a negative internal dialogue of worry, self-doubt and even frequent ‘impostor syndrome’.
How can a lack of confidence manifest in a lawyer and affect their work?
One of the most common times a confidence crisis manifests in a lawyer’s career is when senior associates are on the partnership track. Their worries and self-doubt arise around whether they will make it as a partner or not. They begin to ask themselves questions, such as: “Am I justified as a lawyer?”; “If not partner, then what?”; “Have I wasted years of my life?”
The worry and stigma attached to what their career will be like if they are ‘stuck forever’ as a senior associate drives their confidence crisis and impacts their work performance.
The stigma around not making or taking partnership also impacts confidence. It is quite common that during a senior associate review process, if the associate being reviewed is asked if they want to make it to partnership and replies ‘no’, the associate in question starts to doubt career progression within the firm or even begins to question and reconsider their career in law altogether. If this is the case, the confidence crisis hits, faced with the uncertainty about the future of their career and what they will do if they leave law.
The Confidence Crisis is one of the most under-recognised concerns in the legal profession at the moment.
Another area that impacts a lawyer’s confidence is through compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue comes about through empathic engagement with their clients. This primarily affects associates, as their proximity to clients leads them to open their hearts and minds to the difficult times their clients are going through. As a result, there is an emotional cost of caring for their clients, which increases their worry and self-doubt.
Another way I see a lack of confidence manifest in lawyers is among senior partners who recognise they might have become somewhat ‘institutionalised’ within the firm. Although they are fiercely committed to the firm in question, their sense of self outside the firm can fade gradually, leading them to question their identity outside the world of law. Although these are undoubtedly some of the most talented, remarkable senior leaders, I have noticed when coaching them on a 1:1 basis that their lack of confidence arises when their identity is solely attached to being a partner at a law firm.
The concern I hear from senior partners is the fear that, if they retire or move, they might lose the validation and social status of their leadership position. Their sense of identity and confidence is entirely tied to being a partner and being at a firm. Many senior partners confide that they realise they have neglected other aspect of their lives, such as passions or family, and are beginning to dread retirement, creating a crisis as they can feel trapped and lack the confidence to make the move into another career or retire.
There are other reasons why confidence crises can also be severe among senior partners, which is another performance wellbeing area that does not get much attention. For example, many of my senior partner clients say it is “Quite lonely at the top”. Senior partner stops getting the mentoring and the sponsorship that trainees, associates and junior partners get. Once you get to the pinnacle of your career, who is your sponsor? Who is your mentor? A senior partner is a sponsor and mentor for everyone, but very few are that for partners, if any.
This type of isolation as a leader can impact confidence. For example, who can a leader be vulnerable with? Who tells the leader off? Colleagues often hesitate to criticise their senior partner for fear of reprisal. Who does the leader lean on? As a senior partner said to me: “Every close relationship has me as the supporting person; who do I lean on?”
Why is this issue particularly severe for senior associates as opposed to lawyers in other positions?
A crisis of confidence is particularly severe for senior associates because they are on the partnership track. Many senior associates feel they are on a two-year interview process. A client of mine told me that the partnership track is like constantly being audited for two years. Not only do they have to perform well and meet and exceed their billing hours, but they also have to compete against their colleagues and impress other partners. Every day their confidence is being tested and it can feel overbearing on their self-esteem.
A senior partner is a sponsor and mentor for everyone, but very few are that for partners, if any.
It is also the time in a lawyer’s career where I see burnout most often. When a senior associate makes it to partnership, although it is a huge and remarkable achievement, it can also generate intense performance anxiety as the senior associate becomes the most ‘junior’ member of the partnership when, just months or weeks prior to that, they were the most senior member of the associate group. This transition can be particularly challenging to keep inner confidence high and performance anxiety at bay.
What are your go-to methods for tackling poor self-confidence in the lawyers you work with?
When a confidence crisis strikes, the best step to tackling poor self-confidence is first to assess the root cause or causes — a deep dive into a person’s confidence story is what I do to see what has eroded that confidence.
In my experience coaching leading lawyers both on a 1:1 basis and in a group or workshop setting, there is always a defined time when confidence flipped the other way. The aim is to pinpoint the catalyst event that has had a subsequent ripple effect and then address the situation, dissolving the unrealistic views and building up a realistic view of the lawyer’s strengths and weaknesses. This is done most powerfully through personalised confidence intervention and a personalised tool kit they use daily to build up their confidence narrative.
What is a ‘confidence box’, and how can it aid a lawyer’s wellbeing?
A confidence box is an effective exercise to help build up a lawyer’s self-esteem. The tool starts with auditing all your past experiences where you succeeded and received positive feedback. Then you create a file and store all your moments of success and feedback there.
Whenever you feel a confidence crisis striking or have self-doubting thoughts, review your confidence file and remind yourself of your good work. The file aims to use external feedback to drive an internal shift in feelings of confidence. To make the internal shift, you want to rehearse your success movements daily by reading and visualising them.
Beyond validation from others, what are some effective methods a lawyer can use to build up their own self-esteem?
Building your self-esteem is not about reaching a point where your confidence is 100% every day, all the time. Nor is it about expecting that you will overcome a confidence crisis in a day. Building your self-esteem is something you do little and often every day by taking intentional confidence-boosting actions that are in line with your goals and values.
Another effective method for lawyers to help build their self-esteem is a mindset shift around what confidence is. In my coaching experience, I have had many clients whose confidence crises take the form of imposter syndrome and are sensitive to the stigma around confidence. Overcoming the stigma attached with confidence is paramount to building self-esteem that will lead lawyers to reach their goals.
Confidence is not arrogance, narcissism or being someone who can speak over everyone else. Being confident in ourselves makes us less self-absorbed as we become more open to feedback without getting defensive. Confidence does not mean you are invincible and will never fail again. Confidence does not mean that you will always be in a positive state or that you will not experience anxiety or self-doubt.
Building up your confidence means you know you can handle negative feelings, overcome the obstacles in your way and achieve your goals. Confidence does not come overnight; confidence is something you build through actions and reflection over time.
If you are starting from a place of low confidence, seeking external help with 1:1 coaching is a great way to jump-start your confidence transformation. I have also established a ‘boost your inner confidence’ workshop that has been hugely successful as part of a leadership or partner development programme. After implementing performance coaching, associates have reported that they felt better equipped with empowering tools and strategies to navigate the partnership track successfully and felt they had a safe and secure outlet to address their wellness and performance concerns – whereas before they kept their stress bottled up, which drove worry and self-doubt.
Charlène Gisèle Bourliout is a health coach, wellness consultant and burnout prevention adviser dubbed the “Soulicitor” by her clients. A former London lawyer, Charlène coaches her clients on personal and professional life optimisation through a combination of high-performance coaching, burnout prevention and mindset optimisation.