UNTANGLING FEAR IN LAWYERING
A Four-Step Journey Toward Powerful Advocacy
By Heidi K. Brown
American Bar Association 2019
Great lawyering in the modern era frequently comes from a source far removed from the confident bravado of the lawyer stereotype portrayed in films and on TV. In her fourth book, The Introverted Lawyer: A Seven-Step Journey Toward Authentically Empowered Advocacy (ABA 2017), Brooklyn Law School Prof. Heidi Brown revealed that, in a profession dominated by extroverted, self-assured and garrulous personalities, it is often quiet, withdrawn and even under-confident lawyers who shine at the heavy lifting of intellectual research, creative thinking and persuasive writing demanded at the highest levels of today’s competitive and challenging legal environment.
Introverted, shy and socially anxious law students and lawyers, we learned, are hidden gems that every law professor and law firm manager should seek and hone towards self-actualization to maximize their schools’ prestige and their firms’ profits. While dedicated to reassuring reticent lawyers that they are not alone and, given their inward-looking nature, that they can possess essential legal skills of insight, empathy and analytical attentiveness that more outgoing lawyers sometimes do not develop, her earlier book The Introverted Lawyer also served as a much-needed clarion inviting the legal profession to shake off its dusty bias favoring extroversion and embrace the talents and value introverts bring to the table.
Professor Brown’s most recent book, Untangling Fear In Lawyering, is likewise a must read for legal professionals. The book first reminds us that introverts not only belong but can thrive as lawyers—even high stakes litigators—advancing both the profession and the law itself. It then takes the next needed step by providing a wisdom-laden instruction manual that quiet and anxious students, lawyers and their mentors can use to unwind the misaligned thinking, loss of self-esteem and resulting despair that can accumulate in introverts once they are thrust into the arena and expected suddenly to excel at what for them are inherently discomforting tasks: public speaking, facing critical judges and handling hostile adversaries, difficult clients or abusive superiors.
Confident leaders of the bar will learn of a world few of them know exists, where highly intelligent and outwardly accomplished students and lawyers suffer internal turmoil moored in an insidious sense of inadequacy. Where people with stellar grades and writing ability seize up, unable to muster coherent thoughts or sentences because their brains have spawned neural “fight-or-flight” pathways that produce debilitating anxiety—sheer terror that blocks clear thinking and blinds literally their ability to see or hear what is transpiring—in court, at depositions or during large meetings.
Where future legal stars develop “imposter complexes,” convinced they are frauds who will be shortly outed and fail out of school or lose their jobs. Where talented people experience panics and stress levels so profoundly beyond ordinary nervousness that it is simply unfathomable to most extroverts. A reality in which the traditional guidance of “face your fears,” “just do it,” “fear is good,” “you’ll get used to it,” or “fake it till you make it” is naïve and counterproductive.
For suffering introverts, Untangling Fear is a masterpiece of healing. The Introduction through Part I of the book lays a foundation of acceptance and trust by relating numerous anecdotes by other sufferers—most soothingly, many from the author herself. Stories of law training agony that, episode-by-episode, can calcify introverts within layers of fear: painful humiliations inflicted by the Socratic method; the all-or-nothing microcosm of career success or failure linked wholly to first-year, single-exam grading or making law review; mandatory 1L moot court-triggered meltdowns; the competitive scramble for summer jobs and internships; the bar exam bar to being licensed; making mistakes and receiving red-ink edits as junior lawyers.
All exacerbated by an overriding fear that they are the only one panicking and that their superiors and colleagues can tell, and disdain them as weak because they visibly blush or sweat. For many readers, passage through Part I will be a catharsis, a therapeutic revisiting of past wounds or buried traumas that is requisite to deep healing, while simultaneously beginning that process by explaining that clients, too, have fears, that even good lawyers make mistakes, that being fearful is not cause for shame—but also warning that fear does have consequences if we allow it to inhibit our creativity, impair our client and professional relationships, or devolve into substance dependency or other mental health issues.
After establishing community, trust and clarity, Part II of the book proceeds to explore the biological and physiological underpinnings of fear. It defines fear as science-based, as a material, could-impact-anyone phenomenon, and casts fear as an objective malady to be addressed clinically and without judgment—an angle of approach that should temper potential skeptics’ instincts to dismiss incidents of outsized fear as isolated, subjective and psychological in origin.
By focusing on brain anatomy and scientific studies demonstrating how fear blocks learning and performance, Brown draws a baseline vantage point from which open-minded extroverts can comprehend disabling fear despite never having experienced it. From there springs the soul of her book as an agent for progressive change, taking on old school law professors and law firm leaders who believe that intimidating and instilling fear in students and young lawyers is the best motivational tool for higher achievement. Who maintain that fear sharpens minds and trains advocates to never show weakness while serving the clients for whom lawyers must be bastions of strength and hope.
Many with this mindset, Brown observes, while brimming with confidence and self-worth, nevertheless operate from their own “insidious kernel of fear,” which she calls “the scarcity mindset,” a belief that life is a zero-sum game where other people’s success somehow diminishes one’s own sense of accomplishment, where instilling fear in others lessens one’s own fear. It is a “power dynamic” whereby the economic “pie cements. Boundaries stain in darker ink. Fiefdoms entrench. The haves and have nots stay the same.” Empowering those with a scarcity mindset stymies “growth … [and] innovation. None of this is education of our minds or cultivation of our legal souls. It’s exclusion, nonsensical hierarchy, and rejection, for no legitimate reason.”
We must change the fear-based training model in law schools and law firms. We must remember to pause when we “perceive … anger, frustration, resistance, and irritability in ourselves and others” and “consider whether, at the root of these emotions, fear lurks—fear of scarcity in some individuals, and of rejection and exclusion in others. By recognizing and peeling back these masking emotions, exposing fear in its raw unpretty state, and then untangling it, together we can progress.”
Old schoolers will insist that lawyering, like life itself, is inherently a struggle for survival. In all fields of endeavor, only the strongest and ablest do and should rise to the top. Success in the law requires mastering multifaceted skills and characteristics, and clients and society overall are best served if lawyers who fear to perform primary aspects of their jobs leave the profession or remain at its lower rungs, where succumbing to their fear poses the least risk of harm.
Part III of the book handily refutes these arguments, which miss the point entirely. First, fear also inhabits other esteemed vocations: medicine, journalism, engineering, big business and even professional sports. But in those fields, unlike in law, schools and training grounds have acknowledged fear’s presence and have adopted measures to curtail its deleterious effects on performance. Particularly in sports, top athletes have learned to accept without shame that they may not conquer fear, but that they can still achieve peak performance by working into their training routines mindfulness that enables them to recognize the chemical signals of mounting stress before it becomes disabling distress.
Second, society optimizes when every entrant to a field—be it grade school, law school or a large firm practice—has a genuine equal opportunity to succeed regardless of the baggage they carry (usually through no fault of their own). Recognizing students and lawyers who fear and nurturing them towards self-actualization guaranties the highest probability that truly the best will rise to the top. Discounting, dismissing, negatively judging or otherwise discouraging lawyers who fear ensures a system whereby many of the ablest are tossed aside and less qualified lawyers occupy positions of influence instead, which dilutes the profession and disserves its clientele.
Having soundly proved its premises, Part IV of the book sets forth the exercises by which lawyers can train daily to “find their inner athlete,” defuse their fear and maximize performance.
Untangling Fear is brilliant on many levels. Reading it can be transformative. For Brown, the book was clearly a labor of love, with each structural element and phrase meticulously thought out. The writing is clear and concise yet packed rich with information and deep moral and philosophical truths, all while maintaining the impromptu ease and carefree flow of a master storyteller. The book has already succeeded abundantly to reduce stress among lawyers. Hopefully, it will also pivot in the regime change in legal training that Brown advocates will maximize the legal industry’s capacity to serve. We should listen to her.
Alexander H. Schmidt is a solo practitioner in Colts Neck, N.J.