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There are particular personality traits that make us good lawyers. For example, most lawyers are professional pessimists, able to spot the possible catastrophes in a transaction and anticipate a wide range of problems in any scenario. Most of us are also urgent, efficient, intense and results-oriented. And we learn to regulate our emotions to be effective.
Sounds great, right? Maybe. But while these traits make you a good lawyer, they do not make for a happy life. What to do? I spoke with Tal Fagin, a former M&A attorney and a certified life coach, about the importance of “leaving your lawyer at work,” so you can have a better personal life and more meaningful relationships.
Here are her top five strategies for turning off your inner attorney.
We lawyers want things to be right. In a great litigation practice, lawyers engage in cross-examination — intense questioning used to challenge and correct. At work, and often in the other aspects of our lives, we try to do things correctly and we expect others to follow. We speak precisely and expect that others will, too. “Say what you mean, and mean what you say!” But in your personal relationships, you really don’t need to point out every little thing that is not precisely accurate. In fact, this tendency to correct is quite unwelcomed by others. It might be better just to gloss over things sometimes for the sake of harmony.
Instead of focusing on the details, look at the big picture and ask yourself: Would you rather be right in this particular situation or loved in this relationship? As Ruth Bader Ginsburg said about personal relationships: “Every now and then, it helps to be a little deaf.”
Lawyers are in the business of being smart and knowledgeable. Clients expect it, and oftentimes it is unacceptable to be wrong. It can be difficult to remember that your friends and family don’t have this same expectation. You don’t need to be an expert in everything, all the time. This can be a particularly problematic personality trait to leave at work because lawyers can be very attached to their identities as smart and expert. But beware: Always being the expert can lead to disconnection and loneliness. Others simply admire you from afar but never feel able to connect with you because you lack vulnerability.
Instead of trying to prove to your friends (or worse, your spouse) how smart you are, let others speak, ask them questions, and learn from them. Like a good deposition, information gathering is important; and in personal relationships, it is crucial to effective communication. Leave your expert image at work so your personal relationships with friends and loved ones can improve.
Lawyers are trained to focus on the worst-case scenario. Pessimism is a helpful character trait because it enables us to anticipate problems. This kind of pessimism is important to prudent legal advice — it helps us advise clients on how to avoid these potentialities or defend against them. This is precisely the skill that clients expect their attorney to possess, and they pay well for it. But this “professional pessimism” doesn’t serve us well in our personal lives. On the contrary, pessimism and risk-averseness significantly limit our potential. Both traits make us loathe failure, which can make us afraid even to try. Without branching out in our personal lives, we can’t experience anything new or grow as a person. We live on the surface of our lives, without ever “digging in.”
Recognize that the lawyer in you will almost always shut down any activity or idea that is deemed risky. Determine not to listen to that lawyer sometimes. Make it your goal to enjoy your life, not simply survive it.
Lawyers like evidence. We rely on precedent. Our clients expect us to review the law, the facts and the evidence, and provide guidance on potential outcomes. Although this is a tried-and-true way to make decisions at work, it may not be the best way to make decisions in your personal life. Truthfully, the lawyer’s logical, mind-centric “super-analysis” is unnecessary in many areas of your personal life. Getting out of your head and into your body can be just what you need to make better decisions and start enjoying your life more. Your mind will tell you all sorts of things, but your body never lies.
The next time you are faced with a decision in your personal life, focus on how your body feels when you consider your options. For a change, listen to your body instead of your head. As Robin Sharma says, “The mind is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master.” So, leave the evidence collection for your arguments, negotiations and legal briefs, and take a leap of faith sometimes.
When representing clients, lawyers often narrow their focus to find only facts that support their client’s position. This works well when advocating for your client in negotiations and litigation. Unfortunately, narrowing your lens in your personal life can alienate you and cause you to miss many things going on around you. This doesn’t help you, and it certainly does not help your personal relationships. When you narrow your perception, everything becomes an opportunity to collect evidence to support your version of the story. Instead, open your eyes to others’ perspectives, especially when you are having difficulty with someone else’s personality traits, and be objective.
The personality traits that make you a great lawyer are useful sometimes, in some situations, outside of the office. There is much more to you, however, than the person who shows up to work each day. Be more.
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