By Adam Carvalho – Coach at the Carvalho Consultancy and former partner at Farrer & Co.

You’ve made it through law school and the training contract and suddenly you’re feeling that the real work begins and the training wheels have come off! Being an associate can be such an exciting period of growth but it is not without challenges. Here are some thoughts which come from sessions with associates looking to establish the foundations for a successful and sustainable career in the law.

  1. A recent study which examined the well-being of lawyers identified three elements which are important: Autonomy, Belonging and Competence.

As an associate, you want to feel that you are developing ‘structured autonomy’ – a degree of independence with appropriate supervision and the ability to discuss tricky issues that arise. You want to feel that you are part of a team or firm you respect, or perhaps an area or group. And you want to feel that your competence is growing and you are starting to find your feet.

When I am coaching with associates, we often identify one part of the ABC which is missing. Sometimes, it might be – for example – a competence issue, in which case you might think about specific training in a black letter law point or a skill. It might be a question of looking at ways to develop ‘structured autonomy’ or cultivate links and a sense of belonging.

  1. I feel that mindset is one of the crucial areas at this stage. There are two main points.

First, we tend to come from a ‘fixed mindset’ background, where we know what we need to do to pass exams and may have been a top student. Part of a happy and sustainable career is developing a growth mindset, where you recognise that you will continually be challenged by new issues which are beyond your current expertise and that each time you rise to a challenge – no matter how imperfectly – you grow in confidence and competence.

Second, law schools and firms tend to encourage a pessimistic, ‘poverty-style’ mindset which focuses on challenges and setbacks. It is of course right that when we are advising on a document or legal strategy, we look at all of the things that could go wrong. But this mindset becomes detrimental if applied to life, which ultimately is far more multifaceted and unpredictable than most legal matters.

There are simple practices such as making gratitude lists and writing out, each evening, a list of three or five small wins which can start to move your mindset from poverty to positive. It’s not a question of blind faith but simply reflecting on the many positives which can be ignored if we mull on the one challenge or setback of the day.

  1. In my experience, many people who are currently at the associate level are very clued up about the importance of habits. Books like ‘Atomic Habits’ can be really helpful in thinking about these. I would add, however, the importance of establishing effective work habits that work for you. Check out my article on time recording, for example, if you are struggling with this aspect of the work. Learning how to delegate, how to network, and how to have difficult conversations with colleagues and supervisors can take initial effort – and feel uncomfortable – but they are key skills which will serve you well in due course.
  1. Purpose. What are your values; what gets you out of bed; what really enthuses you; what are you looking to achieve? Thinking about purpose and values at this stage can be so useful when, later, you encounter tough periods and challenges. There are many resources on this, such as ‘The Element’ by Ken Robinson, and it often forms an important part of coaching discussions.
  1. What’s success? This ties in with defining success. What is your current definition? Does it mean, for example, working on the biggest cases in your area, transactions on the front pages, promotion, lifestyle, balance, and financial rewards? Each person has different definitions of success and you can plot your own course to success as you define it.
  1. Victim mentality. Being an associate is challenging in part because you move from having a relatively high degree of control over your activities – at university and law school – to fitting into a team and working with more experienced lawyers and potentially demanding clients. You may not agree with the way that a supervisor does things or find a client unpleasant.

One of the ways we can react to this is by developing a victim mentality – feeling disempowered, as if we have to run as fast as we can to please everyone, looking for a ‘rescuer’ who will swoop in and save us and feeling resentful that none comes, and coping with the panicky and fed up feelings with coping mechanisms.

If this feels familiar, see if you can build awareness of the patterns and look at ways to reduce the reactivity – pausing slightly before responding, using neutral language and apologising/justifying less. This may be challenging at first but, again, is a skill that will pay dividends. Resilience grows from facing and experiencing anxiety and doing something different to the habitual response.

  1. We can feel scared of making a mistake or horrified by having made one. The fact is that all senior lawyers have made mistakes and the world has not ended. Rather than letting this weigh you down, if you make a mistake, work out how you can tell someone and start moving towards correcting it.

Then, once you have done this, sit down and do a ‘circle of responsibility’ – write down everyone who was involved; draw a circle, and make a pie chart showing the different parties who were involved. There are usually many people involved, whereas as associates we take on all the responsibility. Finally, once it’s resolved, sit down and reflect on what you have learned through the process, and the resources you have developed as a result – may be new relationships, new skills, the knowledge that you can survive difficult periods and grow from them.

  1. External v internal locus. One key insight from the therapeutic tradition is that we can have an ‘external locus’ or internal locus of evaluation. Imagine going into an appraisal – your supervisor gives you negative feedback you feel is unfair; you stay calm and politely stand your ground; the supervisor does not budge and you are not promoted.

There are two ways to look at this. Either an external locus: I didn’t get promoted; it’s all awful. Or an internal locus: I stayed calm, I stood my ground; I am cultivating these skills and strengths which will take me to where I want to go. A number of studies show that working on maintaining an internal locus leads to more sense of control and enjoyment when we deal with the inevitable complexity and challenges of professional life.

About us

The Carvalho Consultancy is an award-winning therapy, coaching and training agency. We support lawyers with the ups and downs of life and the job, providing practical, insightful support. And we should know – we’re lawyers ourselves! Visit our website. Connect with us on LinkedIn: search for Adam Carvalho – coach for lawyers

This article was originally published on LexisNexis as part of a mini-series on lawyers’ mental health.

Share with: