Pessimism is a common trait among legal professionals, putting their long-term mental health at risk, writes Jerome Doraisamy.
Research shows that law is the only profession in which pessimists outperform optimists. It is widely accepted across almost all professional strands that being optimistic will help you perform better in your daily work schedule. Law is the exception to this rule.
As law students, and then as lawyers, it is crucial to develop and maintain certain professional skills, such as the ability to look for the flaws, the mistakes, the worst-case scenario in any given problem. It is crucial to be able to anticipate and then mitigate problems if and when they arise, which, in the context of legal practice, happens quite often.
Clients don’t necessarily come to lawyers because they are happy. If you are a criminal lawyer, clients arrive on your doorstep because they are in trouble. If you are a family lawyer, your clients are going through a divorce or, in some cases, there has been an episode of domestic violence. If you are a commercial lawyer, there may be a major contractual dispute between parties.
There appear to be, at face value, very few instances in which a client will be coming to you with a positive problem. As such, being able to look at issues with a pessimistic hat on, to direct a client through the worst-case scenario and out the other side, is paramount as a lawyer and thus forms a key component of legal training.
But I think there is an inherent danger when that pessimism spills over into the personal sphere, and you are no longer able to physically and emotionally separate yourself from the office. It could have an impact upon your health and wellbeing, just as it did mine. In light of this, how can you safeguard against the pessimism in law?
It is important to ensure you have connections outside of law that provide different perspectives, such as keeping up with friends and networks who have no nexus to your legal study or work. For me, such persons can provide a viewpoint on the ways in which I conduct myself and live my life that I otherwise would not be able to see. And, importantly, one should ensure regular contact with such networks. Making time rather than finding time helps me get a regular refresher on my work and life, which I often need.
In the context of the educational and professional sphere, it is crucial to have helpful, practical mentors who have 'been there, done that' who can steer you through difficult periods of pessimism. Allowing such persons into your inner circle provides you a learned perspective that you may not have the capacity of foresight to fully comprehend.
I have relied heavily, personally and professionally, on mentors from my alma mater, UTS, over the past few years. This has been tremendously fruitful for me in that these mentors keep me grounded and inspired, as well as offering some level of emotional security when dealing with a difficult workload or task.
And, on an individual level, we need to be better at managing our expectations of the working environments in which we all find ourselves. Take your workplace or campus for what it is, and adapt to the conditions as need be.
By recognising the skills and knowledge required of you, and combining it with the strengths and talents you can offer, I believe you’ll be better placed to thrive in that context rather than simply survive in it. Put on your professional hat for those hours that you need to be wearing it, and then make sure you take it off once the working day is over.
Such suggestions are simple, common sense ideas. But even reading this, and then (hopefully) considering their merit, can kick-start a desire within you to employ strategies that you believe can help on an individual level when dealing with this perceived issue. At the very least, it could put you in a better place to manage yourself than you were five minutes ago.
Of course, not every legal professional workplace necessitates the pessimistic approach that I am referring to. But I am yet to come across a legal professional, junior or senior, who hasn’t experienced this in some form and at some point. As such, a conscious understanding and appreciation for one’s surroundings, and a strategic direction to negate it, should give one a greater chance of ensuring the stability of their positive health and well-being.
Jerome Doraisamy is the author of The Wellness Doctrines for Law Students and Young Lawyers.