Resilience is a word widely used in the legal profession, but what does it mean to be a resilient lawyer? Is it something innate or something people can work on to become more resilient? How does workplace culture affect the resilience of employees?

We interview Leah Steele, a former lawyer and coach to professionals, about what resilience means, how to build it and when the term “resilience” can be used by organisations to blame individuals for lack of resilience when a toxic workplace culture may be the problem.

Steele is the founder of a business called Searching for Serenity. She provides mentoring and training both to private individuals and to companies and law firms around concepts of burnout, stress and resilience.

We also speak to Simon Coles, General Counsel, about his experience with winding up a solvent company during the Covid-19 pandemic and what he learned about his own resilience.

What does it mean to be resilient?

Leah Steele: “The question of what resilience is, is a very wide ranging question. It’s actually not something that many psychologists can even agree on. So there are as many definitions of resilience as there are people. What it means to be a resilient lawyer, though, in my opinion, it is about being able to continue to work in a way that is sustainable, that is healthy without damaging the individual, and that can respond to the ebbs and flows of the job.”

Why do lawyers in particular need to be resilient?

Leah Steele: “We are the people that others come to you when they’re in distress, when they’re in need of advice or support or guidance, or need structure. And so to be a resilient lawyer means to pick up all of that work and all of these stressors, all of the strains, all of the distress that goes with that work. And we need to be able to respond to all of that empathetically and responsibly as well, without compromising the quality of our advice, the work that we do, or our livelihoods. And that’s a really tricky balance. So, resilience is so important because you’re essentially on a wobble board on top of a boat on a choppy sea the whole time. And there is anything at any one moment that could tip you over. And resilience means that even if you do fall, you can still come back to center.”

Can you tell us about the idea of individual resilience and how that is affected within a group or workplace context?

Leah Steele: “So resilience typically, and historically has always been something that we consider is on the individual – the individual needs to be resilient. They need to be able to respond to anything. The example I gave to a client a couple of weeks ago was this. If you put a normal, healthy, responsible, human being and a vat of hydrochloric acid, then not going to be very resilient for very long, it’s going to dissolve them. So we have to look at whether we’re actually creating that toxic acidic environment for other people and how as a group, we can take a responsibility and an attitude towards resilience to facilitate the people within it. “

What are some of the steps individuals can take to build their resilience?

Leah Steele:

  1. “The first step is to recognise that resilience is a learned skill. It’s not something that is innate, that we’re born with. It is not something that you either have or don’t. And that’s not me saying that that is psychological research. It is essentially a muscle to be exercised. And the more that you look at your resilience, the better it can become.”
  2. “The second part here is to recognise that resilience is not about doing more, doing it faster, doing it harder. It’s about doing what you’re doing over a long period of time. This is where longevity, sustainability are real key words, because resilience isn’t resilience if what you’re doing is this rapid fire, almost like an ECG movement where you perform highly and crash, sprint stop is not resilience. It’s about being able to create over the long-term. And that means it has to be rest, creativity, play. There has to be something that engages and inspires and energises you outside of work.”

You had to wind up a company, Growth Street, during the pandemic. What did you learn about your own resilience as a result of that experience?

Simon Coles: “ I think the crucial thing that I found was demonstrating vulnerability in a corporate context can be an incredibly powerful thing. And I think it’s entirely necessary and people who don’t are the people that worry me. So my own vulnerabilities that emerged through the pandemic are shared by many people:

  • how to ensure that your children can have a continuing education when the schools are not open
  • how to ensure that you and your partner can both do your jobs, do what you’re supposed to be able to do in that context as well
  • worrying about relatives who may be isolated or you’re far from

And I think sharing those experiences with other people who are going through their own challenges, it effectively means you are talking about your lives. And you’re not only focusing on professional things, but through that process of sharing, it builds trust. It shows a commitment to an end collective endeavor that is both positive and worthy. And through that discursive process, you end up realising we’re not in this alone. It’s not just me against the world. We’re all suffering but we can all help each other. And it comes back to the fact that I really don’t see resilience as a binary thing. It’s something which constantly evolves.”

What would your advice for building resilience?

Simon Coles: “I think it comes down to faith. And when I say faith, I don’t mean in a religious sense. I mean, in the core of the word, I see faith as choosing what to believe and when it comes down to it, I have made the conscious choice over the past 18 months to choose to believe that things will get better, no matter how bad it seems, everything will be alright in the end. And if it’s not alright, then it’s most definitely not the end.”

“Don’t treat it as binary. It’s not something you have, or you don’t have, no one has it 100%. It’s always an evolving journey and then choose to believe that you will get through things because ultimately that is the most powerful choice you can make in that context, whatever is thrown at you.”

Leah and Simon both joined us for a video interview on how to be a resilient lawyer.