Helping others solve problems is all part of a day’s work for you as a legal professional. You’re trained to use your powers of analysis and reasoning to dispassionately examine an issue, assess all relevant factors and determine the best resolution. Yet it is much more difficult to calmly and objectively use these skills when dealing with your own professional setbacks.
It doesn’t matter whether the bump in the road is minor, such as a critical performance review, or significant, such as a missed promotion or layoff. Either way, such career setbacks undermine your self-confidence and career goals. You may react with anger or despair. A feeling of failure is typical. Uncertainty about what to do next is common as well.
Most setbacks are generally unforeseeable events that can’t be avoided or factored into your career plan. Although it’s impossible to anticipate such stumbling blocks, there are several strategies that will help you rebound quickly and turn adversity into opportunity.
Pause and Get Your Bearings
In the aftermath of a setback, your immediate goal is to work through emotional reactions such as shock, sadness or disappointment. It’s important to recover your composure before deciding what to do next. Give yourself a few days to regroup so you can be as objective as possible when reflecting on the situation.
Perhaps you missed out on what you thought was a sure promotion. Re-evaluate your own performance on the job and any external circumstances that could have adversely affected your chances. Also consider how much control you actually had over the situation. Were there problems with your performance that you failed to address, or did factors beyond your control come into play?
Don’t Look for a Scapegoat
With any type of setback, avoid blaming other people and instead focus on the sequence of events that led to it. You may be able to identify things you could have done differently that might have changed the outcome. This may help you gain valuable insights into your own abilities and the dynamic in your office. As a result, you’ll regain confidence in your abilities and find the focus and energy you need to move forward.
Avoid Playing the Victim
Even when events seem to be out of your control, remember that you still have the power to make decisions and choose a course of action. Rather than seeing yourself as a helpless victim of circumstance, recognize that you can take a proactive approach to resolving the problem. Follow the example of people you admire who seem to take adversity in stride. How do they react when something goes awry? Emulating productive responses can shorten the time it takes you to bounce back.
To bolster your confidence, think of a project you handled successfully. For example, perhaps you led an e-discovery team in document review and finished ahead of schedule. Put the resourcefulness and management skills you used in that situation to work on your own behalf as you evaluate possible courses of action now.
Look Ahead and Make New Plans
As soon as possible after a setback, stop dwelling on the past and focus your attention on the future. Instead of obsessively pondering what went wrong, think about what you can do right to regain your momentum. If you missed a promotion or received a poor performance review, perhaps you need to update your skill set. List action items that will broaden your experience.
Get the Support You Need
To overcome some setbacks, you may need outside help. Even if you are uncomfortable talking about your experience, it’s important to reach out to others who can advise and guide you. A former colleague or mentor can boost your spirits as well as help you come up with workable career strategies. Family members and personal friends can help you brainstorm solutions as well, or at least offer a much-needed confidence boost.
Another option is to seek out a support group or online chat room specifically for legal professionals in your situation. This could also be a good time to reactivate existing connections within your network and make new contacts. Get involved in professional organizations, your local bar association or industry-specific groups. The people you meet may be able to help you put your career back on track.
A career setback does not necessarily mean your professional life is on a permanent downhill course. Instead, try to view it as a chance to reassess your direction and identify and take advantage of new opportunities. You’ll regain a sense of control and purpose, which can in turn allow you to overcome the setback and move forward.
Charles A. Volkert is executive director of Robert Half Legal, a leading staffing service specializing in the placement of attorneys, paralegals, legal administrators and other legal professionals with law firms and corporate legal departments. Based in Menlo Park, Calif., Robert Half Legal has offices in major cities throughout the United States and Canada.