Get in the Right Mindset to Boost Your Legal Career

This post originally appeared on Law.com

The fundamental difference between a young lawyer who is thriving and satisfied, and another who is dissatisfied and struggling, is not culture or environment—you’ll find both types of people at every firm. The difference between the two is mindset.

One has learned to enjoy the process, embrace the challenges of the day-to-day, and put the work in to get better. The other focuses only on the destination—the next rung on the career ladder. One feels in control of his or her circumstances, while the other feels controlled by them. One concentrates on creating value for others through his or her work, while the other concentrates on what value can be extracted from the job.

In other words, young lawyers who succeed over the long-term will approach professional development with a “growth mindset” and not a “fixed mindset.”

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The distinction between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset comes from the work of Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, who synthesized her research in the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. In Mindset, Dweck dives deeply into the power of our beliefs, and explains that how we think about the possibility of change can have a significant impact on nearly every aspect of our lives.

Someone who holds a fixed mindset believes that their character, intelligence and creative ability are static and immutable and that they have little control over outcomes in their life as a result. Put another way, and to contextualize this concept for our purposes, associates with fixed mindsets who do not consider themselves to be particularly productive and do not believe they can become more productive in the future.

A person with a growth mindset, on the other hand, is motivated by challenges and sees failure as an opportunity to get better through the experience of trial and error.

Law firm associates with fixed mindsets look at successful lawyers in their firms and are daunted and discouraged by the gap between where they perceive themselves to be in their careers and where the successful lawyers already are.

Associates with growth mindsets recognize the gap between where they are and where they want to go, but rather than being discouraged by it, they’re motivated to get better. They know that the qualities and characteristics—things like personal accountability and discipline—that made other lawyers successful can be cultivated through hard work. They do not become disheartened by their shortcomings. In fact, they don’t perceive them as shortcomings at all; to them, they’re opportunities for learning and growth.

Cultivating a growth mindset, therefore, requires patience and a long-term perspective. And while patience is required, passivity is not. Practice is required if you want to grow. And the type of practice you engage in matters greatly—you can’t just go through the motions and expect to get better.

“Deliberate practice,” which is a term popularized by Florida State University professor K. Anders Ericsson, is purposeful, systematic, and requires focused attention. It’s conducted with the specific goal of improving performance and it’s work that stretches you beyond your current abilities.

If you’re engaged in deliberate practice, it means you’re deeply immersed in your work. Young lawyers who incorporate the principles of deliberate practice into their legal careers plan their work thoughtfully, work intensely on it, and then seek feedback from others on their performance. They continually improve their performance because they continually push the boundaries of their comfort zones. For them, what was hard 12 months ago becomes routine, which allows them to grapple with the next set of challenges, with the confidence that they’ll figure it out.

Perhaps you’re feeling the weight of stress associated with the uncertainty of the job bearing down on you. It’s tough to be a lawyer. The whole job is learning to dance with uncertainty. It’s nothing more than grappling with tough problems, and it never stops. As you advance, you just trade-up to bigger problems and greater consequences.

But with practice you’ll learn to navigate the challenges more effectively and come out stronger on the other side. Therefore, this is the time to dig in and not give up.

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There is likely a gap between who you are and who you want to become. The way to bridge this gap is to develop the skill set and mindset necessary to succeed. Muscles only grow after they are broken down by strenuous exercise. Your mind works that way, too.

Place yourself under stress and force yourself to grow. Push yourself to the limit of what you think you’re capable of and then push harder. This rigor is what’s required to have a growth mindset, and a growth mindset is what’s required to become a successful lawyer.

Looking for more? Check out these related posts:

Think Big, Act Small and Reap the Professional Rewards

Embrace the Chaos, Counselor

The Right-Brained Lawyer is the Lawyer of the Future


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