Fear of failure holding back young lawyers

By Leanne Mezrani|24 September 2013

The secret to making junior lawyers smarter faster is to tackle their fear of failure, a knowledge management expert has claimed.

Speaking at the Janders Dean Knowledge Management Conference last Friday (20 September), Stephanie Abbott, director of knowledge learning & development at Mayer Brown JSM, said “a very strong and entrenched fear of failure” is standing in the way of more efficient learning by junior lawyers.

Abbott, whose talk was entitled The problem with kids nowadays: Making junior lawyers smarter faster, explained that young lawyers have a high aspiration for success and so consciously structure their working lives away from their weak points. This limits their on-the-job learning, she added.

“They are weeding out the experience of failure from their life.”


Firms can help lawyers face this fear through emotional intelligence training, said Abbott. The ability to identify, assess and control emotions – such as anxiety, mismatched expectations, defensive reasoning and disengagement – can make lawyers more efficient and, in turn, translate into a greater return on investment for the firm.

She warned, however, that some firms treat training like a “vaccination program”.

“You don’t want to spoon-feed people too much – people need to work a little bit to process things ... You don’t want to be tricked into purporting to do training when there is a lack of change.”

Instead, firms should assist young lawyers to transition from academic learning to gaining skills in handling relationships, said Abbott, which can start with encouraging juniors to view partners and other senior staff as clients.

“It’s about understanding what a client actually wants, not just what they’ve been told to do,” she added.


Emotional intelligence training can also be a significant factor in protecting lawyers from burnout and job dissatisfaction, according to recent research published in the International Journal of Law, Psychology and Human Life.

The study found that the way lawyers learn how to think and reason – not heavy job demands, specialty practice and intense pressure – “is the main and deeper source of their susceptibility to stress and burnout”.  The emphasis on precedent and doctrine “underestimates emotions, interpersonal relations and social context”, the authors wrote.

Fear of failure holding back young lawyers
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