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How Lawyers Can Utilize Fear Setting

By Melissa Walker | Nov 12, 2020 | Mike's Office Management Tips

To run a successful law firm– whether it’s a solo practice or a large firm– you’ll need to not only excel in the areas of law you’re practicing in, but also in all matters of running the practice itself. Running a legal practice comes with its own, unique set of challenges that even the most prepared lawyer setting out to start a new practice may find themselves overwhelmed with. I’m here to help make the job of running your law office just a little easier. Welcome back to Mike’s Office Management Tips.
— Mike Campbell

When I first started practicing law, I wore a suit daily. I took care to make sure I didn’t wear the same tie more than once every two weeks and that my combinations were always different. Although I gave off the impression that I had things together on the outside, my insides were constantly tense. I was scared out of my mind and was in a constant state of anxiety. Every mistake I made, I amplified in my brain and took the error to the furthest extreme. I misspelled something in a pleading? The Judge would see it, think I’m an absolute idiot, and hold it against me for the rest of my life. I didn’t return a client’s call within an hour? Next thing I could expect was a complaint and a terrible Google review.

The more things change, the more things stay the same. Even though I rarely wear suits (and dread the days that I have to), I still battle stress, anxiety, and worry. My projection of confidence can sometimes deceive you into thinking everything else is all squared away. Isn’t that the job, though? We have the honor of hearing about our client’s concerns, fears, and personal stories of pain and throw it onto our shoulders and tell our clients, “Hold on, I’ve got this.” When panic strikes, we tell ourselves to shove it down inside and deal with it later because we have a job to do, and it’s time to get at it.

The problem is, fear/stress/anxiety, whatever you want to call it, builds, and builds, and builds when it has nowhere to go. Yes, something is thrilling about dancing with fear when we are in front of a jury. But what about when we’re at the office and realize we’ve got to fire a client or walk away from a case? Some of us have mastered these situations. Others, like me, dread these situations and avoid them like the plague. But they’re unavoidable. So, how can we handle the fear?

One thing I’ve found that helps me tackle fears individually and at the office is “fear setting.”  And when I say “office,” I truly mean “office.” I tell my team members that I’m fearful of something, and then we engage in a “fear setting” exercise.

What Is Fear Setting?

Fear setting is something esteemed podcaster and author Tim Ferris applies in his daily life. I figure if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me. It’s basically an exercise similar to what you would find in “How to Stop Worry and Start Living” by Dale Carnegie, only a little more involved.

First, I tell my teammates what I’m afraid of and then write it at the top of a whiteboard. For example, “I’m afraid of declining/firing a specific client.”

I then draw three columns vertically down the board, where I list out the worst-case scenarios of the action. So, I fire a client, and here are the responses I fear:

  • Column One: The client files a complaint to the bar licensure board.
  • Column Two: The client files a malpractice claim.
  • Column Three: The client makes a negative Google review.

Again, I can shrug these things off as “there’s no merit to any of these,” but if I find myself stuck making the decision, then all the shrugging in the world won’t get me anywhere. I need to make something visible to pry myself out of inaction.

For that, I work through each scenario:

What if the client files a complaint?

I’ll tender it to my insurer. I’ll trust the licensure board to listen to my side of the story and make the best decision possible. Countless complaints are filed annually, many of which are found to have no merit and never see the light of day. Even if the review board does send me notice of a complaint, other lawyers can help with that. I haven’t mishandled trust money or defrauded anyone. I’m not going to prison or will be asked to jump out of a Higgins boat and storm the beaches of Normandy under German fire. I don’t make light of a complaint, but I also have a number of other cases to handle; and the worst thing I can do is let this one issue distract me from acting diligently and handling my other cases competently.

What if the client files a malpractice claim?

Well, based on the situation at hand, it’s very unlikely. Even if they file a claim, I will tender it to my insurer and let them hire an attorney to help. I’m regularly filing lawsuits. In those cases, individuals get a copy of the Petition I drafted and are now facing court action. They live and move forward. Life will go on for me too.

What if the client makes a bad Google review?

Of all the possibilities, this one is the most likely to hit home, and one I’m guessing you might fear as well. What happens when you are looking for a place to eat, and one diner has four stars and the other five? You know which one you’re going to—except, wait. The one diner had five stars until one person ranted about the place having the wrong type of ketchup. Oh, and what’s this? The owner of the restaurant responded politely and professionally to the person’s concerns. So, that’s not an issue.

Context is key in these situations. Even if a bad Google review occurs, we can always take that as an opportunity to show potential reviewers our willingness to listen and respond. A bad review doesn’t say anything about you or me personally—instead, it speaks to not meeting the person’s expectations (reasonable or unreasonable) in a given situation. I think you’ll see that many times it’s because we didn’t have the right type of ketchup. So, we’ll work through this one too.

After every “Fear Setting” session, I feel as though a weight is lifted from my shoulders. Not only does my staff get a peek at the “real me,” a person with stresses, anxieties, and fears like every other person, but I’ve been able to work through a stressful situation by working it out outside of myself and not allowing it to fester inside.

Fear isn’t weakness. Fear becomes a weakness when I don’t unwrap myself and become vulnerable to the fear with myself and others. We have tough jobs—we fight a lot of battles. I hope you won’t let an internal one keep raging while there’s work to do.

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