The Alchemy of Law Practice

Whether you realize it or not, the legal profession is plagued by fear.

Think about it—our clients are scared. Your area of practice doesn’t matter.  All of our clients are scared of something, or they wouldn’t be talking to a lawyer. They are scared to lose what they have, failure, judgment and to be seen as ignorant.

And truthfully, most of us share those same fears.

We are scared of not being good enough, smart enough, fast enough. We’re scared to lose what we have, failure, judgment and feeling ignorant. Unlike our clients, it’s our job to take on the fears of others, so we carry an ever-increasing load of fear. The more “successful” we are, the more clients we have, the more fears we carry. It can be very difficult.

Except when it’s not. Carrying these fears is not difficult when we are in the flow of our magic as lawyers. When we’re in that magic, being a lawyer is easy. The trick is being able to enter that state consciously in our day-to-day professional life.  Here’s how:

  1. Identify the fears
  2. Accept the fears
  3. Move into the fears
  4. Move past the fears

Identify the fears

We are taught to “issue spot” in law school. In law practice we need to “fear spot” because when we can identify the fears of our clients, we have identified the projects or areas in which we can help our clients. Our job is to identify and remove the fear. We may not be able to change the result, but we CAN remove the fear. Once the fear is identified, we move to the next step, acceptance.

Accept the fear

Fear is a part of life, but none of us like to admit we’re scared. The magic of law practice happens when we identify our client’s fear and help them accept the situation so that we can help them progress. It’s as simple as giving your client permission to be scared. Some of our client’s situations are very scary. Letting them know they are not the first person to face this, and that even if the issue is life-changing, they will be able to face it. This is alchemy. It’s changing something from a crude state into a refined state. You’ve seen this happen in a change of body language from slumped to straight. You’ve seen it in a change in the eyes from dull to bright. You’ve heard it in the tone of voice. You’re very good at it – even if you’ve never realized it in yourself before. Simply giving your client permission to admit they’re scared is an immense power possessed by attorneys. It’s sad we don’t use it more often.

Moving into the fear

This is what we’re taught to do in law school.  Moving into the fear is issue spotting and putting the plan together. It’s estate planning. It’s business planning. It’s fact-gathering. Fear cowers before a plan.

Moving past the fear

When we implement the plan, we are working to remove the fear. Once we’ve been though something once, our fear usually goes away.  It doesn’t mean that we want to go through the experience again, but we don’t fear the experience with the same intensity we did when the experience was as-yet unknown.

To bring this into practice, focus on the relationships at stake in every situation. When you can put an individual client fear in the context of the relationship the fear effects, then you’re entering the magic of being a lawyer. You’re earning the title “counselor.”

None of us are immune to fear, and as lawyers we share the biggest fear in the world with our clients: facing our fears alone.

Frank Herbert may have said this best in his book Dune:

I must not fear.

Fear is the mind-killer.

Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.

I will face my fear.

I will permit it to pass over me and through me.

And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.

Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.

Only I will remain.

Your clients are not alone—they have you.

You are not alone—you have peers.  All you need to do is recognize your own fears and give yourself permission to share those fears with your peers. We all are scared of not being good enough. If you ask, help will be there.


  1. Avatar Sean Nichols says:

    Sometimes lawyers forget how scary the legal world can be to non-lawyers. It happens in all professions, but the ability of courts to render a judgment against someone – compel someone – makes it especially intimidating for non-lawyers.

  2. Avatar Alex Athans says:

    Great post. I could definitely identify with the subject of fear, having just set up a law practice with a colleague of mine. Luckily, I’ve found that the legal community, both on-line and corporeal, are great sources of help and encouragement.

  3. Avatar Dorothy Gause says:

    I agree with Alex: we spend so much of our time telling people how good and competent we are (and we are) that it feels like a big “secret” to feel anxiety or self-doubt. I find that talking with other lawyers about my anxiety really helps relieve it. (How ironic).

  4. Avatar Alex Athans says:

    Exactly Dorothy. Everybody faces uncertainty right off the bat. The unknown is always scary.

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