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Young Associates

The Stoic Associate: How to Deal With Feedback and Worry Less

By Jay Harrington

For many young associates, their first “real” job is at a law firm. If you fall into this group, it’s likely that you’re receiving honest — sometimes glowing, sometimes harsh —  feedback about your work for the first time. On the other hand, you may be receiving no feedback at all. It’s up to you to discern the meaning of the direct, passive or complete lack of feedback that you receive. This means you need to understand the personality, quirks and traits of the person delivering it (or not delivering it, as the case may be).

When I was a young associate, every time I sent an email to a partner or client that included work product or a bit of analysis I found myself eagerly anticipating a “pat on the back” email in my inbox. As you may have guessed, those pats on the back rarely came.

That’s life in a law firm! But that’s a lesson that took me some time to learn. Too often, I found my mood shifting with the winds — and whims — of the day’s feedback.

What I finally learned is that as a law firm associate you need to learn to look for approval within yourself, and not from external sources.

In other words, you need to learn to be a stoic associate.

A Philosophy for the Real World

Stoicism is a 2,000-year-old philosophy pioneered by the Greeks and popularized by the Romans. Stick with me here — Stoicism is not the stuff you learned in Philosophy 101. It’s a philosophy for the real world, and fits within Thoreau’s definition of what philosophy should be: “To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school … it is to solve some of the problems of life not only theoretically, but practically.”

At its root is the idea that we should work to distinguish between the things that are within our control and those that are not, and to focus only on the former. In other words, we can’t always control circumstances, but we can control how we respond to them.

How to Deal With the Highs and Lows

Accordingly, whatever you do, don’t get too high or too low in response to feedback, and don’t reflexively offer up excuses in response. Despite the idiosyncrasies of individual lawyers, most law firms are, by and large, meritocracies. If you fall down you must own up to your shortcomings, failures and disappointments, and even “suck it up” from time to time when you didn’t do anything wrong. In most instances, the excuses you make will outweigh, compound or at a minimum draw more attention to the problem you were dealing with in the first place.

The last thing you want to do is get tagged as an associate who doesn’t own up to his or her responsibilities, doesn’t accept criticism well or tries to pass the buck. Those are much harder labels to shed than any negative consequences that redound from making an honest mistake or two while grinding away in a stressful profession.

By the same token, don’t be disappointed by lack of feedback in the wake of a job well done. If you’re consistently kicking butt, people are noticing. Be stoic about it, and keep doing what you’re doing.

Epictetus was one of the most interesting and influential Stoic philosophers. Despite being a slave, he had a huge influence on the thinking of another famous Stoic who was far above Epictetus’ station in life, Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Despite his life’s challenges, Epictetus never got too high or too low. He understood what he could control and what he could not:

“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions.”

Of course, I’m not comparing life as a young associate to life as a Roman slave. But young associates would be wise to heed Epictetus’ advice. If your happiness and job satisfaction is based on a need for outside affirmation, then you’re putting your success in the hands of others instead of your own capable hands.

Related: “Three Tips to Overcome Imposter Syndrome as an Associate” by Jay Harrington

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Categories: Daily Dispatch, Law Firm Associates, Legal Career Development, New Lawyers
Originally published July 24, 2017
Last updated September 22, 2019
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Jay Harrington Jay Harrington

Jay Harrington is the owner of Harrington Communications, a leading thought-leadership PR and marketing agency that specializes in helping law firms and lawyers build awareness, influence and new business. Jay is the author of three books for lawyers on issues related to business and professional development, including “The Productivity Pivot,” “The Essential Associate” and “One of a Kind: A Proven Path to a Profitable Practice.” He podcasts at The Thought Leadership Project and writes a weekly email newsletter. Previously, he practiced law at Skadden Arps and Foley & Lardner. Follow him @JayHarrington75.

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