Harnessing Vulnerability in the Legal Industry - Martindale-Avvo

Harnessing Vulnerability in the Legal Industry

Vulnerability feels like a “soft” word with no place in the highly competitive, high-risk world of legal practice. However, the idea of embracing vulnerability has been gaining traction in the profession. It can support many of your practice ideals, from positive client feedback to high job satisfaction.

What Is Vulnerability?

Researcher Brene Brown takes a broad view of vulnerability, finding it fundamental to human experiences – and aspirations – like joy and love. According to Brown, vulnerability isn’t limited to what happens with those near and dear to us. It’s also an essential element of a functioning workplace.

Attributes essential to business, like innovation and creativity, require a willingness to fail. By encouraging a workplace culture of vulnerability, leaders are also giving people the chance to take risks that are necessary for success. If people can’t be vulnerable, they can’t give the organization the agility it needs to drive forward. 

It’s also important to state what vulnerability is not. It’s not about oversharing or making yourself look incompetent. Especially for those in senior leadership roles, it’s about acknowledging your struggles and setbacks. It means admitting that you don’t have all the answers and are willing to learn from others. 

Vulnerability doesn’t just happen among colleagues; it’s also a way to develop better client relationships. Research shows that clients want their lawyers to be human. That necessary humanity shows itself as caring, compassion, and empathy, all closely connected to vulnerability. 

Why Is the Legal Industry Resistant to Vulnerability?

The legal industry is typically conservative, serious, and resistant to any display of human vulnerability. Lawyers are often trained from early days in law school to over-prepare and to be ready with a solid answer for every question and every possible scenario. As they move into practice, they fall into the norm of believing that vulnerability is a sign of weakness

As a reminder of the legal industry’s general intolerance for imperfection, one need only think back a few years to the Zoom-Cat Lawyer incident during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Zoom-Cat Lawyer became a viral sensation with the leak of a video of a court hearing conducted on Zoom. Present on the call were a judge and two lawyers, one of whom could not remove a filter that made him appear to be a cat. As the “cat lawyer” apologized and explained, “I’m not a cat,” the other call participants responded with little display of humor.

Lawyers often witness people reprimanded for mistakes in courtrooms, boardrooms, or client meetings. There’s also a tendency to perceive vulnerability as a sign of incompetence. While those whose skill is well-established and beyond doubt might benefit from showing vulnerability, those whose skill is unknown or whose competence is in question can find vulnerability leads others to reflect poorly on them. 

The law is a hyper-competitive and high-stakes profession, so embracing any vulnerability – where people display emotion, acknowledge imperfections, and become open to failure – might seem too risky. However, allowing space for vulnerability in legal practice might lead to better representation, more client satisfaction, and improved mental health for lawyers.

Can Vulnerability in Law Be a Good Thing?

In a word, yes. Even in the legal industry, making space for humanity has many potential benefits. 

Better Leadership. Leaders who are vulnerable gain more trust from colleagues. Vulnerability leads to better collaboration and idea-sharing.

Enhanced Creativity. An open-door approach is fundamental to creative problem-solving in any organization. Leaders who don’t display and encourage vulnerability also shut the door to new ideas. 

Improved Mental Health. Keeping an outward appearance of perfection can cause a decline in mental health for everyone, including professionals who work every day to represent the interests of others. Vulnerability releases the burden by changing expectations. 

Increased Client Satisfaction. Clients usually hire lawyers during difficult periods in their lives, prompted by events like divorce or DUI arrest. Lawyers who hide behind a facade of perfectionism don’t always instill confidence in those clients whose legal needs might not be met at the end of the day. 

More Workplace Enjoyment. Legal professionals who work in a culture that allows mistakes and vulnerability will be happier doing their jobs. Workplace contentment likely feeds the practice’s bottom line. 

Less Risk of Professional Misconduct. Professional practice guidelines typically require lawyers to explain issues to the extent that is reasonably necessary for clients to make informed decisions. A lawyer unwilling to show vulnerability risks not informing their clients appropriately and failing to meet this professional obligation.

There’s also a more fundamental reason to show your humanity as you practice law: if your clients like you, they will refer you to others. Not only is making the human connection beneficial for you and your client but for the future of your practice as well. 

Taking the Next Steps

If you’re ready to start the movement toward vulnerability in the legal industry, here are a few ideas:

Empower Open Communication. Foster a culture at your firm that encourages dialogue. Make a five to ten-minute open chat session about how things are going a recurring part of team meetings. 

Embrace Failure. Openly acknowledge when things don’t go as expected. Approach this as a learning opportunity for you and your team. 

Practice Empathy and Active Listening. Listen to team members and clients, and demonstrate your humanity by repeating their words. 

Encourage Feedback. Ask your team for input and take their feedback with respect and courtesy, even if it’s not adopted.

Lead by Example. Acknowledge when you are not sure of an answer and embrace your own vulnerability. 

Get Support. Consider a coach or professional to help with team communications. 

In the spirit of vulnerability, you can even take a risk and ask your closest advisors and colleagues how they think you can all change the shape of legal practice.

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