Every lawyer has had some type of case setback — whether it’s the judge deciding for the other party on a motion, losing the case, or being fired by a client. It doesn’t matter how good you are, or how many years you’ve been in practice, even minor setbacks can cause stress and feelings of defeat.
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Tips for Dealing With — and Learning From — Case Setbacks
Obviously, you can’t control every aspect of every case in your career, but you do have control over how you handle setbacks. Here are some things to remember the next time you face disruption or defeat.
A change of perspective is always helpful.
Instead of a failure, think of the setback as a learning experience. That may seem like a trite platitude, but there is no setback in court that can’t teach you something. Maybe it’s as simple as recognizing something about the judge or opposing lawyers you can use next time. Maybe it’s a way to improve your time management, legal research or preparation skills. Whatever it is, you can put the lesson to good use in the future.
For example, one of the attorneys at our firm, Brian McCormick, Jr., learned a valuable lesson about preparation during a federal trial in Boston:
There was an email chain we were going to show in our opening, but a portion of it needed to be redacted because one of the emails in the chain contained information covered by the attorney-client privilege. I made sure to explain to the paralegal putting our presentation together that we needed to use the redacted version of the email only, not the entire chain. Because I trusted and had worked with the paralegal numerous times, I never thought to review the presentation again that night or the next morning.
In the middle of my partner’s opening the next morning, when the document was called up on a screen in front of the jury, it was the unredacted version of the email.
The defense lawyers were furious, the judge yelled at us, and the jury was confused. While we eventually won back the trust of the jury and obtained a great result for our client, I learned a valuable lesson: Everything needs to be double- and triple-checked. It was my responsibility to make sure the final presentation was accurate, not the paralegal’s, and I learned from that experience.
In another case, attorney Scott Vezina says he learned to be more aware of his audience from an unlikely source. In a birth injury case in Jefferson County, Texas, his aunt, who had been dismissed from the jury pool, became a spectator for the trial and shared her concerns. Scott explains:
On day two of the trial, I thought for sure I was winning. That evening, my aunt called and said she had to have a very serious conversation with me. She said, ‘People don’t understand what you’re saying. You’re using words and phrases that make no sense.’
I asked for an example. ‘When you had one of the witnesses on the stand, you were pointing to some of the testimony and saying, is it the former or the latter? I only went to high school, Scott. I don’t know the difference between former and latter when you are pointing at a document. Also, you were using the term hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy. Nobody knows what that means, even if you explain it to them 100 times. What does hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy mean?’
I responded that it means the baby is suffocating. ‘Well then, say the baby is suffocating,’ she said. ‘Say the baby is dying. Say the baby is not getting oxygen. But don’t use words that no one is going to understand. Think like a juror and not like a lawyer.’
Beginning on day three, Vezina started talking like a juror rather than like a lawyer.
I no longer used hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy or any other fancy legal term. And by day five, when I rested my case, the defendant’s lawyer approached me, and we reached a settlement that would take care of this child for the rest of his life.
The lesson learned? Vezina says: “Technical jargon that we learn and absorb over the years becomes second nature to us. We have lived the case for two or three years, so we know every word, phrase, term, and scientific application for the entire case. But the jurors are only going to be listening for two weeks, and they may not understand it the way we do.”
Work on your resilience ahead of time.
Perhaps the most important thing you can do to recover from a professional setback is to work on developing your resilience ahead of time.
As Link Christian explained in “Survival Skill No. 1: Emotional Resilience,” resilience is the ability to bounce back in the face of setbacks, emerging stronger, wiser and more powerful from the experience. “Resilience is a skill that is 100% learned and can easily be built up with training.”
That’s important because how you handle yourself after a setback can make all the difference. For example, Ross Feller’s David Colleran, shared this anecdote:
Video evidence we didn’t know existed of an allegedly negligent event surfaced during the course of litigation. It was certainly arguable that the video greatly helped the defense, although it was not 100% conclusive. Due to our ethical obligations, we had to produce it, and we did.
The defense certainly referenced the video in support of their case. But, again, the video was not 100% conclusive. We were still able to get the case resolved very favorably based on the entirety of the evidence. I guess the lesson is that you can come across potentially detrimental evidence in the middle of the case, but you deal with it as best you can and still try to prevail on the collective evidence.
Without that ability to rally in the face of a setback, the outcome could have been different.
Resilience takes practice. It means putting a stop to negative thinking and catastrophizing, seeing the benefits of past challenges or setbacks and, most importantly, not giving up.
Take Care of Yourself to Manage Stress
You must take care of yourself — inside and outside the courtroom — to be at your best. Getting sufficient sleep, exercising and eating healthy, are ways to ensure you are able to recover from inevitable setbacks. When you aren’t healthy or getting enough sleep, setbacks are much harder to handle.
Take the time to step away when you can to destress and relax. When you get back to work, you’ll feel and perform better.
Remember you’re not alone — setbacks and failures are universal.
Being a lawyer is often isolating. When you suffer a setback you may feel like the only person in your firm who isn’t thriving. To make it worse, emotional reactions are often viewed as unacceptable, so lawyers hide their emotions — becoming even more isolated.
Despite how it may seem on the outside, there isn’t a lawyer out there who hasn’t experienced case setbacks. Reach out to a professional mentor or trusted friend to share your experience. Chances are they’ve dealt with something similar and can help you work through it.
Create a solid support system.
Be aware that feelings of isolation and failure may be signs of burnout and depression, which can worsen and sometimes lead to drug and alcohol abuse. Overcoming a setback is much easier with a solid support system in place. In addition to mentors and close friends, reach out to support groups in your community or bar association.
Setbacks Are Part of the Deal
As lawyers, we expect setbacks from time to time. But even with the challenges, it is meaningful and rewarding to advocate for clients and help them find justice. I hope these tips help keep you in fighting form.