Controlling the Fear

I recently reached out to several peers and mentors to discuss fear. For a week or so it felt like I was just treading water, trying to stay alive in my practice. I spent a lot of time just writing down all the things I had to do in order to make sure I didn’t miss anything. But I didn’t have enough time to cross things off the list. And there, constantly in the pit of my stomach was a little ball of fear. Fear of missing a deadline, letting down a client, messing up in general, or getting disbarred. I was also concerned for my future, knowing that fear leads to anger, and anger doesn’t help anyone.

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Fellow Lawyerist contributor Leo Mulvihill assured me that constant nervousness and a pit in the bottom of my stomach was completely normal. Eventually I started to think of this fear as a good feeling. When my partner and I first started this firm our concern was bringing in any clients whatsoever. The fact that we have enough clients for me to be worried about missing something is a good sign.

John Martin, a friend through the American Bar Association, also saw the silver lining in my predicament. He pointed out that if I have enough clients, I can get rid of some of the problem clients. Unfortunately, most of my issues come from court-appointed clients. That means I need a pretty good reason to get out of the case. But the lesson here is still a valuable one. When I contacted John in a slight panic, he looked at the silver lining. The advice was a helpful reminder to take a step back from the fear or panic to see what the root is. That will make it easier to address the underlying situation.

Finally, I spoke to Sam Glover about my issue. I explained that I found myself in a constant state of fear. He responded:

Fear is the mind-killer, maybe, but it is also the ethics-complaint-avoider. Keep that fear. It will motivate you to check everything three times so that nothing does fall through the cracks.

This is totally normal. You are still new to everything you are doing. All you have to do is (1) survive, and (2) not screw up. Eventually, it won’t feel so bad, and you’ll even feel like you can handle more work. It comes slowly.

Sam’s point about the ethics-complaint-avoider is spot on. If we let our fear motivate us to check things one more time, or return that phone call a little quicker, we are doing a better job. And doing a better job is the first step in building a referral network. Not to mention keeping us off the disciplinary board’s radar.


  1. Avatar shg says:

    Fear of failure is a good means of keeping you on your toes. But despite Sam’s accurate advice, bear in mind the difference between Herzberg’s hygiene and motivator factors.

    Avoiding screw ups is a hygience factor. Clients expect you not to screw up, and nobody will high five you because you didn’t screw up. If you do, they will complain, as well they should, but nobody will promote you as a lawyer by telling others, “And this kid Josh didn’t screw up!”

    Doing a better job of it is usually due to a desire to do excellent work, is a motivator factor, the sort of thing that will impress clients and make them think particularly well of you. My bet is that you’ve got both going at the same time, but it’s likely that fear only saves you from making stupid mistakes, and it’s your desire to be excellent that will propel your budding practice forward.

  2. Avatar DRB says:

    Josh, I’ve been doing this for 9 years and can tell you that fear still exists. Keep at it. It’s definitely a motivator.

  3. Avatar John Foster says:

    I’ve been doing this 30+ years and still get stage freight. It helps to think of Bruce Wayne and the bats:

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