Lawyers: 10 Healthy Responses to Career Setbacks

All lawyers have experienced some type of setback in their careers. Clients pay us for a desired outcome, but that outcome isn’t entirely up to us. So, although you cannot 100% control your success rate, you can control how you deal with the outcome. Here are 10 ways in which successful lawyers deal with career setbacks.   

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Lawyers: 10 Healthy Responses to Career Setbacks


  • Forget About The Outcome - Just Do Your Best

Perhaps the most important mindset to learn in the legal industry is how to let things go that are out of your control. It’s an incredibly frustrating fact that your success rate includes many factors that are simply uncontrollable. Your client, a judges’ rule, a jury, opposing counsel, their client, the witnesses, etc. all cannot be managed for a go-to outcome.

The sooner you realize that all you can control is your self-discipline, legal expertise and the work you put into a case, the sooner you will learn to let go of everything else.  

  • Be gentle with yourself

Negative judgments about yourself are easy to come by in such a stressful industry, and can quickly become a bad habit. It’s important to understand and believe in the fact that you are doing your best (See #1) in everything you do. This temporary judgment about yourself and your work is not factual. Here’s a list to help you:

Fact: You will fail many times in your career (and life).

Fact: These failures do not mean you will never succeed again.

Fact: When you fail, it does not mean you are not good at your job or as a person.

Fact: Berating yourself each time you fail is not helpful or productive.

We are often harder on ourselves than we are on others. When you are experiencing failure, think about yourself as one of your respected colleagues or friends. What would you say to them? Try to treat yourself with the same compassion. 

  • Develop A Robust Self-Care Regime

We all know the essentials of self-care; quality sleep, exercise, and maintaining a healthy diet. In a high-stress position, it’s crucial to keep up with self-care to help your mind and body during particularly trying times.

Practicing self-kindness can be rejuvenating and simple. Go for a long walk, send an old friend a message, take some time to cook a healthy meal, find a way to make yourself laugh. Common vices may be easy to resort to (e.g. drinking or shopping too much, and other things in excess), but don’t give you a lasting foundation of positivity. You need a reservoir of personal support to get through a setback.

  • Control Your Mindset

We’ve all spent some time in the shower fretting over an argument or client meeting. There’s a tendency to only remember the negative events which prove you’re not as good as you’d like to be. This toxic recording playing in your head is quite biased and unproductive. When you find yourself in this rut, the best thing to do is challenge yourself to change your mind:

Mindfulness and meditation practice is becoming more and more commonplace in stressful positions. There are simple goals of any meditation practice: 

  • Observe your thoughts
  • Recognize they are not who you are
  • Understand they aren’t always truthful
  • Practice separating yourself from your own emotional judgment

With a little bit of uninterrupted time during the day and a relatively quiet spot, you have all the tools you need to start a meditation practice of your own.  

  • Cultivate Resilience

There are many factors to success, but perhaps the most underrated is resilience. Your ability to come back after a setback will help you in any part of your life. Resilience takes a while to learn, but there are a few ways to help yourself in this skillset:

  • Meditation and mindfulness (see #4)
  • Reactive vs. Proactive Responses - Understanding how you deal with your emotions during a stressful situation can help you make better decisions.
  • Focus on Self-Mastery - Confidence in your abilities outside of your profession can allow you to have a foundation of belief in yourself.

Take some time to look back at other setbacks in your life; how did you respond? What was the outcome of that response? And what would you do differently? The answers to these questions will help you to understand where you can start to increase your resilience.

  • Recognize That Failure is Universal

In the moment, failure can feel quite lonely, and you might feel isolated in your experience. This is far from the truth as suffering is a part of every human experience. The legal industry does not welcome emotional responses often, so a lot of energy is spent on covering them up. 

It behooves everyone to recognize the universality of failure and the benefits of the comfort that follows this recognition. You might reach out to a mentor or close friend and share your experience with them. Chances are they might have a similar experience to share with you. Even if they don’t, sharing yours often can make you feel less alone.

  • Reframe Failure as Experience

Similar to mindfulness, the ability to reframe a failure as simply another event in your life can be helpful and, frankly, more accurate. Ask yourself; why do I call it a failure? It might have been unpleasant, or undesirable but what is the point of calling it a failure? Often when we look back on our adverse experiences, we find beneficial outcomes from them. 

Our general learned fear of failure makes it difficult to celebrate the overall experience. Taking the time to allow yourself your own point of view on an event can be surprisingly uplifting. By taking a curious approach, you might find positive aspects about this situation in the long run.

Allow yourself the freedom of interpretation.  

  • Validate your Emotions, Then Let Them Go

Emotions are very helpful. They allow us to reflect on a situation and understand what it means to us. During a setback, it’s normal to feel angry, sad, and even shameful, among many other emotions. Although the natural tendency is to avoid these unpleasant emotions, this essentially causes us to deny our feelings. This does not mean they go away, and most of the time they become less controllable. Eventually, our emotions will make themselves known.

If you’d like to work on your emotional acceptance, here are some suggestions: 

  • Identify the Emotion - Understand what it feels like when you are experiencing this emotion, and then give it a name. 
  • Identify How It Presents - Set a timer for 5-10 minutes and lay down. Focus on individual parts of your body to understand how this emotion is physically affecting you.
  • Breathe - Breathe deeply as you explore this feeling. Let your body release its tension. 

Working through emotional experiences can often be done physically. Find a healthy activity you enjoy that allows you to do this on a regular basis.

  • Failure = Opportunity

There is no way of knowing the long-term effects of any one experience. There might be obvious results (such as loss of salary after losing a job), but this is temporary. The moment you understand that change is opportunity, is the moment you understand any failure brings freedom of choice. 

Zoom out from your preferred professional path and try to look at the many twists and turns your career will undoubtedly take. Perhaps your dream job is waiting for you right after you’ve been let go.   

  • Find Support

Being a lawyer can be extremely isolating. You will often feel like you are the only one going backward in your practice, while everyone else is thriving. This kind of bubble mentality can be detrimental to your personal and professional lives if you don’t have a good support system. If you do not have family or friends close to you, consider seeking professional help to maintain good habits within yourself.

Being a lawyer is difficult, and your career goals may take your whole life to accomplish. Allow yourself to take your time and give yourself the tools you need to succeed.