Be Authentically You to Be the Best Lawyer

Be Authentically You to Be the Best Lawyer

As we closed out Mental Health Awareness Month, I found myself reflecting on what it means to be yourself as an attorney. I’m a 20-year lawyer with 10 years’ experience managing younger lawyers, so I spend a lot of time giving tips and tricks on efficiency, litigation and trial tactics, and very often I talk about discipline and mental toughness. Over the years, I have learned to handle pressure. I’ve been be on the receiving end of some not-so-nice comments from opposing attorneys and judges. In short, after my last couple of difficult trials, I truly felt like Sia. You know her song that goes: “Shoot me down, but I won’t fall…I am titanium.”[i] That was me. And even though being a trial lawyer is, by definition, challenging…I am genuinely happy. Sure, not every day is perfect, but I have been consistently happy as a lawyer for a very long time.

As a younger lawyer, I definitely remember times when I felt unsure of myself. Like many attorneys, I don’t necessarily like not being good at things or not knowing how to do things. Back in the early 2000s, associate life in law firms was even tougher than it is now. Trust me – it was. When The Tortured Poets Department came out, I laughed to myself about the quote, “You wouldn’t last an hour in the asylum where they raised me” because it kind of resonated.[ii] Law firm life is, and has always been, challenging. However, if you embrace the challenges that come with the practice of law and learn to accept that you can be perfectly imperfect, you can really thrive.

May was Mental Health Awareness Month, a good time to reflect on how we can best take care of ourselves and others. For attorneys, it is particularly important to be in touch with our mental health and the mental health of our team members. Our industry has some of the highest instances of depression, anxiety and substance abuse. In a 2023 study, 66% of attorneys polled stated their professional had been detrimental to their mental health.[iii]

Moreover, 46% of attorneys reported that they had considered leaving the profession.[iv] We see articles all the time with tips on how to improve our mental health including managing our workload, setting boundaries, sharing our struggles and getting enough sleep. These are all important daily practices. I am going to share my secret as to what I believe is one of the most important factors in maintaining our mental health as attorneys.

 

Be Yourself; Don’t Be Afraid to Be Unapologetically Authentic

Many lawyers spend their time thinking about who we should be and what we should be doing instead of honoring who we really are and what kind of professional we would like to be. Sometimes, doing things the way we feel we should do them leads us to be less efficient and less happy. This is not to say that young lawyers should not listen to advice of partners and mentors; however, we all have to do some introspection and learn how to be in touch with what works for us.

Those who know me are aware of the fact that I love a good costume, and I love to “bring the fashion.” Well, I still remember my first closet full of suits as a young lawyer. They were all boxy skirt suits in unexciting shades of navy or black. I wore them to interviews, to the office, and to hearings, and I didn’t feel particularly comfortable in them. These suits weren’t what I wanted to wear; they were what I thought I should wear. As I got comfortable and more experienced, I realized that within reason, I could break the mold a little (within reason) and bring the fashion to the office and even to Court.

I also remember being wildly afraid to admit when I had made a mistake or when I could have done something better. Not only was I afraid to admit that I did something wrong to the partners, I was afraid to admit it to myself. 20 years later, I give myself permission to be imperfect and I acknowledge that there are some things I am very good at and other things that I will never be good at. It’s ok to be perfectly imperfect, and when we share and even embrace our flaws, (1) it actually makes us more human and more likeable; and (2) it helps others to know they can do the same.

 

Being Authentically You = Being Happier

While most of the research on lawyer wellbeing focuses on things like reducing workload, taking vacations, and setting boundaries, I haven’t seen many articles in the legal industry that talk about simply being yourself. It seems like common sense that once we are comfortable in our own skin, we will be happier. Recent psychological research also shows the beneficial effects of living authentically—especially on our mental health. It seems individuals who embrace their true selves “report higher levels of happiness, reduced stress, and a more profound sense of life satisfaction.”[v]

 

Being Authentically You = Being a Better Lawyer

Not only will learning to be comfortable in your own skin make you happier—it will make you a better lawyer! There are hundreds of books out there on how to be a better trial attorney. These books are packed with sample voir dire transcripts, closing arguments, and cross examinations. As a trial lawyer, if you want to stay relevant, there will never be a time when you don’t have to study. Laws change, our jury pool changes and, well, we can’t keep making references to the same movies and historical events and expecting our jurors to understand. You will always have to read books, articles, and case law to keep your edge. However, it is important to keep in mind when you are reading tips and tricks from others that you don’t try so hard to adopt someone else’s strategy that you forget to be yourself.

Have you ever tried to retell a joke that wasn’t yours? It just doesn’t come out right! I’ve witnessed the same thing when watching lawyers doing jury selection and trying to use a bit that was clearly lifted from a transcript of a voir dire conducted by someone else. One of my friends and colleagues, who truly embraces his Irish heritage, has a variety of Irish references and St. Patrick’s Day jokes he talks about during voir dire. But if I tried to use that material, it would be wildly awkward.  On the other hand, I have a style I use when I cross-examine expert witnesses, but it would not work for everyone.

Being yourself as a trial attorney is extremely important. You will find that you connect better with the jury if you are authentic. Juries can sense it when you are confident, comfortable, and genuine.

So if you are having a rough day; just remember—nobody’s perfect. It’s ok to be who you are rather than who you think you should be. You truly can “take your passion and make it happen.”[vi]

 

 

 

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[i] David Guetta ft. Sia, “Titanium” (2011).

[ii] Taylor Swift, “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?” (2024).

[iii] Today’s lawyers and mental health: Mental Health Awareness Month, Thomson Reuters (May 16, 2024), https://legal.thomsonreuters.com/blog/todays-lawyers-and-mental-health/#:~:text=In%20a%202023%20study%20on,due%20to%20stress%20or%20burnout.

[iv] Id.

[v] Be Your True Self: The Role of Authenticity In Mental Health, Mind by Design Counseling (Mar. 13, 2024), https://mindbydesignllc.com/blog/authenticity-in-mental-health/

[vi] Irene Cara, “What a Feeling…Flashdance” (1983).