Cutting through fears of criticism and failure

 

Fear of criticism and fear of failure are common concerns of early career lawyers.

The sources of these fears are divergent, but there are common threads. Graduates will often have been the brightest and the best at school, where failure was a rare experience.

Also, university learning style is structured and predictable, compared with the pressurised environment of practice (including budgets). So it isn’t hard to see how some new lawyers find the transition to practice difficult.

The elements of these fears can be quite pernicious… fear of criticism technically leading to drafting paralysis, for example, a two-hour sentence, and fear of criticism personally – Why doesn’t he like me? Nothing I ever do is right.

Supervisors can respond in three ways. The first is just to relentlessly send signals that the junior isn’t good enough. Some will cope with this. Most will be driven over a cliff. Some may even leave the profession. The second is the babysitter approach – being too understanding – perhaps lowering production standards, technical standards and time disciplines. The third way is the Goldilocks solution – in which through choice of style and language, you try to reduce the experienced fear while maintaining work standards and productivity.

So here’s a few tips that might help…

Try not to lose patience and revert to just do this. Explaining why not only quadruples speed of learning, but it is a style of shared conversation which can reduce personal fear as well. Unfortunately, why takes a little longer. And copping out under deadlines is too easy. Try the Socratic approach… Why do we say that in the opening sentence? Over time, your trainee will develop a habit of intuitively asking the right questions and be much more self-sustaining.

Secondly, remember your three relationships with your producers – you are a friend, a professional colleague, and a boss. If you just choose boss (particularly command and control), you will drive all your millennials out the door. Know which hat to wear in different situations. Being a friend and a colleague at the right times can cut through fear.

Thirdly, explain your attitude to having a go. What you are trying to do here is remove/reduce the anticipation of negative feedback, while building confidence. Let them know that you don’t expect perfection but that they must have a go. Apply a clear time deadline. Review the work calmly and methodically. This approach allows the young lawyer to concentrate on the task, instead of the consequences of underachieving.

Finally, get into the habit of using positive language. Rather than say “I’ll be really disappointed if…”, say “I’ll be really happy when…”.

None of this article says you can’t have robust conversations when they’re needed. Nor does it say that you can’t maintain your standards. The reality is that some people simply won’t come up to scratch. But to get the best out of any cohort, it’s just a question of the style and language you use, and the environment you create.

Published: Queensland Law Society – Proctor – August, 2017

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