Every so often, there are cases that come along that test your limits as an attorney. Maybe they are high profile. Maybe they come from an area of law that is outside of your comfort zone. Or maybe the result in the case could have huge consequences for your client or community. Earlier this year, I had a case that included all these things and it scared me to death. This was a problem because I was lead counsel and it was my job not only to develop a strategy to manage the litigation, but also look confident enough for my client to have faith in my abilities.
For days after the case was filed, I was in a nasty mood. I was tensed up like a spring that had been held back and might burst open at any moment. I found it difficult to do small tasks on the case and focus, dig in, and do the work. While I had support from colleagues and friends, I kept feeling like I was lost in an unknown land with no idea how to get home. When I interacted with my client, I gave directives, identified risks and strategies, and offered consolation for their nerves. But as I did, I knew I was in ‘fake it until you make it’ mode.
I knew I had to get my head right to litigate the case well. I had critical and complex briefs to write and I had to quickly prepare to put on and attack proof in a hearing. How was I going to shake my fears and get my head in the game? I didn’t know what to do, so I kept doing what I always did. Fortunately, for me, that included meditation.
I am adamant about reminding people that meditation isn’t magic but it is a practice that has helped me over the years and gotten me out of many mental jams in the past. Honestly, the fear and loathing I was feeling about the case made me reluctant to sit. In times when I am really struggling, meditation is the last thing I want to do because I know it will force me to confront things I’d rather not feel. Even so, I knew I needed to manage my stress and that I needed a lifeline to keep me steady. I made myself sit even though I knew I wouldn’t enjoy it.
I didn’t do any special practice or guided meditation and I barely focused on my breath. Instead, I just sat in the dark of my mind and let the thoughts swirl around. The thoughts were so intense and mixed up with my emotions that it took me a few days to get my bearings. Something in me must have recognized that I just needed to give it time. My meditation on the first night was a dark haze with little focus and minimal relief. I forgave myself and tried again the next night. I was surprised to find that my mind was less scattered and I was even able to do some loving-kindness practice for myself. That seemed to unlock a door because the third night was when I broke through.
As I sat, I found my mind settling on its own and connecting to my body like a final puzzle piece falling into place. Even as thoughts surfaced about the case, I was calm without effort and could just see them arise. This let me look at—examine—my fear. I could see it as a vision in my mind in addition to feeling it in my body. I saw the vision of me losing the case, making a mistake, and having to deal with the consequences. As I watched, my favorite phrase from my loving-kindness practice– “may I greet my life with joy”—sprang to mind. I selected this phrase for myself because embedded in it is the idea that life isn’t always a joy, but I can still choose to bring it in when I respond to situations in my life. This recollection made me break down in tears for a moment.
When I recovered, my mind collected itself and, in a kind, wise voice from nowhere, said: “Claire you can’t control what happens in this case. But you can control two things: how hard you fight and how kind you are to yourself as you fight.” And that was it. I didn’t conquer my fear at all. I acknowledged it. It was big, and drawn out, and overwhelming. It went right to my ego and shook it to its core. It took me 3 days before I was ready, but I stared that fear right in the eye and saw the truth: that I couldn’t make the fear go away but I could care for myself as I felt it.
Remembering this set me free. I slept better that night than I had in a week. I got up the next day and found it easier to focus. I wrote one of the best briefs I have ever written, with force, clarity, and solid legal analysis. I orchestrated a defense and showed confidence and compassion in preparing my client to testify. The litigation was stressful and worrisome to be sure, but I remained focused and steady throughout. Despite all my fears, the results for my client were much better than I had expected, and I was proud of the job my team and I had done. The funny thing is, though, that the results were not what made me most proud. I had started the case focused on the result and it made me feel alone, vulnerable, scared, and even a little like a fraud about to be revealed. I ended it feeling like a badass because I let the results go.
My meditation practice helped me get out of the mindset of treating the case like a test of my worth as an attorney or a person. It helped me stop punishing myself for all of the things in the case I couldn’t control so I could focus solely on the things I could. In the end, the case didn’t test my limits as a lawyer, but rather expanded them. I had believed unconsciously that a scared lawyer wasn’t a good lawyer. I now know that a scared lawyer can be a great lawyer. I didn’t have to conquer all of my fears to do great work for my client. Instead, I needed to let myself expand to hold the fear with kindness so that it could transform to compassion and courage.
If you are dealing with anxiety relating to a case, you aren’t alone. We have a guided meditation for you. It uses visualization and loving-kindness practice to help you take care of yourself as you serve your clients.