Addressing fear and anxiety with societal mantras like “fake it ‘til you make it” or “face your fears” isn’t all that helpful, and might even be harmful to many of us. Tune in as Molly Ranns and JoAnn Hathaway talk with Heidi K. Brown about her book, “Untangling Fear in Lawyering: A Four-Step Journey Toward Powerful Advocacy.” Rather than stigmatizing fear, Heidi discusses ways to equip attorneys with the skills to work through fear responses and then physically and mentally recalibrate to meet the challenges of legal practice.
Molly Ranns: Hello and welcome to another edition of the State Bar of Michigan: On Balance podcast on Legal Talk Network. I’m Molly Ranns.
JoAnn Hathaway: And I’m JoAnn Hathaway. We are very pleased to have Heidi Brown, law professor and director of legal writing at Brooklyn Law School, join us today as our podcast guest. Heidi is the author of several books to include number one, ‘The Introverted Lawyer: A Seven Step Journey Toward Authentically Empowered Advocacy’. Number two, ‘Untangling Fear in Lawyering: A Four Step Journey Toward Powerful Advocacy’. And number three, ‘The Flourishing Lawyer: A Multi-Dimensional Approach to Performance and Well-Being’. Today’s podcast will focus on her book ‘Untangling Fear in Lawyering’ with an emphasis on practice management aspects. And with that, Heidi, could you share some information about yourself with our listeners?
Heidi K. Brown: Sure. Thank you so much for having me. Yes, I am an author. I love to write. I love to write about well-being. But before that, I was a litigator in the construction industry for almost two decades. About 14 years ago though I transitioned to teaching legal writing. I was at first teaching legal writing while I was still practicing law, so I was working 24/. And for the past seven-ish years, I’ve been a full time law professor and I run and direct the legal writing program at Brooklyn Law School. My true passion lies in helping law students and lawyers and really all contributors to our profession tap into their authentic advocacy voices. I’m sort of the anti-poster child of the fake it until you make it mantra. I’m all about authenticity even if it looks a little messy.
Molly Ranns: Thank you so much for being here with us today, Heidi. Can you tell our listeners what prompted you to write ‘Untangling Fear in Lawyering’?
Heidi K. Brown: My well-being journey — my journey toward writing about well-being really began with my introverted lawyer. I wanted to write a book about the assets that introverts bring to the legal profession because we sometimes get the message, hey, it’s better if you’re loud or gregarious or ready to argue at a moment’s notice, which I have a different take on that.
So what prompted me to write a fear book was I was going around talking to law students at law schools and bar associations and law firms about the introversion book, and I would have people come up to me after these talks and say, “You know, I’m not an introvert, I’m an extrovert, or I’m an ambivert”. I kind of go back and forth between both personality styles. So I’m not an introvert necessarily, but I’m afraid. I’m afraid to stand up to that strong personality in the law office environment or I’m afraid to go to court for the first time. These are more junior people saying those things. I’m afraid to negotiate a multimillion dollar deal. But I’m also afraid to talk about fear out loud because we have sort of this bravado attitude in our profession.
So it got me curious about the science of fear. I grappled as very open and honest and vulnerable in all of my writing about my own struggles in 20 years of practicing law. I had a huge anxiety and fear issue. I also have very strong physical reactions to anxiety and fear. I have robust blushing response, which I write about a lot. Hearing that other people were going through the same struggles that I went through, I decided to dive into the science behind fear. So that’s what led me to research the concept of fear, how it affects us physically, cognitively and emotionally, and that’s what led me to write the book.
JoAnn Hathaway: Heidi, in the book you mentioned conflicting messages that our American society and the legal profession deliver around fear. So can you talk about some of those messages?
Heidi K. Brown: Yes, so I mentioned the fake it till you make it mantra, but I feel like when it comes to fear, our society does give us these conflicting messages. On one hand, we’re told just face your fears, just get up every day and do something that scares you. I joke with my students that I see these messages on Instagram all the time with these seemingly empowering slogans like that. Just face your fears, like it’s so easy or feel the fear and do it anyway. So that’s one side.
But then on the other side, we’re told fear is good for you. Fear is a motivator. In fact, if you’re not afraid, you should leave the practice of law. I heard that several times and I hear students being told that by well-meaning mentors.
But to me those sort of conflicting messages around fear that we should just barrel through fear, act like it’s no big deal or fake it till we make it on one side versus acting like fear is good for us, those messages don’t really help those of us for whom fear can be debilitating.
And I’ve heard a lot of messages in practice when I would confide in again, well-meaning mentors who just weren’t struggling with the same fears I were, they would say things like, “Well, you know, if this is so scary for you, maybe you should go do something else.” But in my opinion, if we stick to those messages without digging into or I like the verb untangling fear, if we stick to those messages, we’re gonna miss out on tremendous talents and really deep thinkers and creative problem solvers who just need a little extra boost to understand how fear affects us physically, cognitively, emotionally, and very basic things we can do to untangle fear, get to the root of it, and then learn again, physical, emotional, and mental processes for managing our fear and stepping into a performance arena with fortitude, not just faking our way through it.
Molly Ranns: Heidi, let’s talk about faking your way through it. You mentioned that you don’t like the slogan fake it till you make it and I think our lawyers hear that all the time, especially those who are dealing with impostor syndrome and those early in the practice of law. Can you talk about how to avoid faking it until you make it and instead presenting authentically?
Heidi K. Brown: So fake it till you make it might work for some people, but I’m living proof that that did not work for me and I tried faking it for 20 years, honestly. And just faking it and being inauthentic did not help me grapple with the things that were really holding me back from doing my best work. So instead of advertising or advocating for the message, fake it till you make it, for me it was the messages like “Oh, just do 20 more depositions and by the 21st you’ll be good to go.” That just didn’t work because I was stepping into every single scenario doing the same exact thing. And nothing was changing.
So for me, if we set aside that message to fake your way through it and everything will be fine, and instead give ourselves permission to talk about the unpretty side of fear and anxiety, give ourselves permission at least when we’re training to get to know how fear affects us physically. So I’ll start with the physical because to me, that’s a little bit easier than addressing some of the emotional stuff that comes along with it.
For me, when I started doing this work and understanding the science behind fear, I had to do a physical inventory and literally sit and think and process what happens to me physically when I either anticipate a scary lawyering scenario or I’m stepping into one. And I’d really never sat back and observed that before and what happens, what’s the first physical sensation I feel, what’s the next one, what’s the next one. And what I realized for me personally, is that when I’m afraid or I sense that very normal and real emotion of fear, my body does what it’s supposed to. It reacts in a self-protective mode. We all go through either the fight flight or freeze response. And that’s normal, and it’s designed to protect us. But for me, what I realized is that my body’s instinctive reaction to fear was actually doing the opposite. It was harming my performance rather than helping.
So for instance, when I’m afraid, my shoulders cave in, my arms cross, almost happen without me realizing it, it’s habit. My body sort of wants to curl up in a ball and become invisible and roll out of the room. But what happens with me because I, as I mentioned, I’ve very robust blushing response, I turn red, I get very hot and sweaty, my heart starts beating really rapidly, I can’t think. So what I learned in studying the science of fear instead of just trying to fake it, I can’t fake not having a blush. It’s biological, right?
So instead of faking my way through it, I understood it and I realized, “Oh, okay. There’s something I can do about it.” And I started studying what athletes do. And for me, what worked was learning how to recalibrate physically in the moment. Stop, pause, stand or sit in a balanced standing or seated stance like an athlete would do because athletes don’t curl up in a ball, they stand in a balanced stance, put shift their shoulders back, open up your arms, breathe, and remind yourself, and this is where the mental part kicks in, I’ve done the work. I deserve to be here. I’m prepared. I know what I’m talking about. I’m excited about what I’m about to do. And so you combine the physical recalibration with the mental soundtrack recalibration and what it does for me is it calms my heart rate down, it helps me breathe better, and then my brain can function better.
So combining the physical with the mental and the emotional. It’s called somatic intelligence, we become somatically intelligent, understanding how the physicality of fear can hold us back. But if we become more somatically intelligent and understand subtle adjustments we can make to the way we’re standing or sitting or holding ourselves, we can set ourselves on the right track and then again step into the performance arena with fortitude and build and capitalize on all our preparation, our intellectual preparation.
JoAnn Hathaway: So Heidi, you’re pretty candid in the book about experiencing fears as a lawyer and you just described several of those. Can you describe some of them, the fears in particular, that you experienced while you were actually in the practice of law? Talk a little bit about how law practice managers can help employees to amplify their voices and overcome some of these fears.
Heidi K. Brown: Yes, so when I was a junior associate, I worked for a great firm, it was a boutique construction litigation firm, and our cases were very high stakes. And I thrived in the research and writing aspect of my job. I loved free researching, I loved writing about the law, but the performance aspects of our job scared me. And frankly, I didn’t learn how to do any of them in law school. And our jobs were so high stakes and there was a lot going on, so there wasn’t a lot of training time.
So we were sort of thrown into the fire, so to speak, really early on, which was great experience. But I would walk into my depositions and sometimes I would be the only lawyer on one side of the table and there’d be eight or nine lawyers representing the other parties. I was usually the only woman in the room. This was, 20, 30 years ago, besides the court reporter at the time. And I would be so prepared, I’d walk in there with my binders of questions and boxes of exhibits. The minute that the tenor of the room would get antagonistic and the lawyers would start objecting to all my questions, they knew they could rattle me because it would show all over my face, with my blush.
So depositions were really tough for me even though I was incredibly prepared and I was the one doing a lot of the writing in my cases so I knew how the deposition puzzle pieces were going to fit into the briefs we were writing, but their performance moments really rattled me. And I didn’t know at the time why. I thought I’m just not as smart as the other lawyers or I’m not as tactically savvy as they are. Why can’t I be like them? And I thought back then, with the whole fake it till you make it mantra, I needed to try to mirror the behavior of the lawyer sitting across the table from me.
The same thing would happen in court. My heart would be racing incredibly, quickly, but again I was prepared. So in my opinion, I wish I could go back and redo all of those scary experiences. It would happen as well when I would negotiate, we’d be negotiating these multimillion dollar contracts. And I would be writing the contracts. I knew what the provisions were that needed to be in the contracts. And I also knew intellectually how to bring the parties together. But when the tone of the room became confrontational, or antagonistic, again, all my fear responses would kick in.
So what I wish I had known then, what I wish supervisors, again, I worked for great people really well-meaning mentors, but their advice tended to be what worked for them. And just again, just fake it, just act confident, you know this stuff, just grow a thicker skin they sometimes would say to me, like that’s possible. Instead, what I would like to see us doing more of is not stigmatizing fear and anxiety as something that holds us back. But instead, viewing these very real phenomena that happened to a lot of us as just things that we can work through.
Like I like to use the athlete or performer model. When athletes begin to struggle with one aspect of their performance, we don’t just say to them, “Just fix it”. We provide coaching around it and we talk it through, we break it down, we untangle it when it comes to athletic performance and when it comes to performers like singers, and dancers, musicians. We don’t just tell them to fix it. We break down the steps, we get to know why this particular task or activity is posing a challenge in this situation. We don’t try to intimidate the person out of the profession they’ve chosen, instead we help.
And so I’d like to see us doing more of is learning. If we’re not equipped with those skills to teach someone how to do it, find attorneys help in those realms, but it really doesn’t take much. For me, I wasn’t an expert in any of this stuff until I started studying myself
Now, I absolutely know what works for me. I know who I am as an individual. I know who I am as a personality type. I think one thing that practice leaders can do is understand again the assets, the tremendous gifts that different personality types bring to the profession. We do not all have to be the same gregarious, confident extrovert to be an impactful attorney. So understanding personality types and why it takes some of us a little longer to jump into the fray. It’s not that we’re not intellectually engaged or excited or incredibly intelligent, it’s just that we process information differently.
One other suggestion I’ll throw out there right now is this amazing, scientifically validated assessment called the VIA Character Strengths Assessment. And it’s the values and action institute on character. Fifty-five scientists got together and developed again, this scientifically validated assessment where they took 24 character strengths. They chose 24 because all 24 have equal merit. And they situated them within six virtues that have been studied by historians and philosophers for centuries. And they created this assessment to help us as individuals get to know ourselves. And it’s a free assessment and we can take this assessment. I encourage practice leaders to get to know themselves, but also their teams. And it identifies each of us tout of the 24 strengths, our top five signature strengths. And there’s 5.1 million different constellations of the top five, which means that all of us are bringing a really cool and unique configuration of incredible strengths to the profession.
So I’d like to see practice leaders understand that we all bring amazing gifts to the profession, but we all bring different gifts that are equally important and valid. And the more that we get to know ourselves as practice leaders, but also as employees and members of teams, we can communicate and develop a shared vocabulary around our strengths. So then when we are hitting particular challenges, which is inevitable in the difficult complex practice of law, we’re able to talk about them not from a stigmatizing point of view but really from a “Hey, I need some help in this area because my strengths lie in this arena, but I’m struggling with this other arena. Can you work with me or find somebody that can work with me on this particular challenge so that I can untangle it and be able to step into the performance arena, not only doing my best work, but actually really enjoying it.”
JoAnn Hathaway: We are now going to a short break from our conversation with Attorney Heidi Brown to thank our sponsors.
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Molly Ranns: Welcome back. We are here today with Heidi Brown talking about how to untangle the fear in lawyering. And I just wanted to make a comment, Heidi. You have said some really important things about reducing the stigma associated with fear and I find that so profound because what I think that does is that it increases our help seeking behaviors, right? It helps attorneys feel much more comfortable with asking for help when they need it. The title of your book is untangling fear. What steps do you recommend to untangle fear instead of the messages to just face your fears as we’ve talked about earlier, or hearing fear is the world’s greatest motivator?
Heidi K. Brown: I like the first step that I started doing for myself to understand why do I have fear in certain situations where I have tons and tons of life experience and by society standards I shouldn’t be afraid, but I’m completely not afraid in other circumstances. So I developed this, and maybe other people have done this too, but in the book I talked about this exercise called comparative fearlessness. And it’s really a self-reflective exercise to start with.
I joke with my students that I was mad at Socrates for two decades for inventing the Socratic method as I feared it in law school. But when I started studying Socrates, I learned that his mantra was know thyself. Let’s get to know ourselves. And so one of the exercises I recommend for untangling fear is getting to know ourselves through this comparative fearlessness exercise. And it’s really, it only takes a couple minutes that you can reflect on situations in your personal or professional life in which you are not afraid at all, but by society standards you might feel like you should be. And so I have two examples of that that I share with everyone write about in the book.
I love to travel travels huge part of my life. I’m not afraid to get on a plane and go to a completely remote location in the world by myself and not necessarily even speak the language or know a single person, but I love that sense of discovering adventure. But my family who doesn’t like to travel and my friends will say, “Aren’t you afraid?” That sounds really scary and I’m not foolish about what I do when I travel, but I’m not afraid.
Another example I like to share is that a couple years ago before the pandemic, I started taking boxing lessons. And I walked into an authentic boxing gym in downtown Manhattan. The first time I walked in there, I was a little intimidated. But when I started taking boxing lessons, one on one lessons, with a real ex-Olympic boxer and getting in the ring, and wrapping up my hands, and putting on gloves, and learning how to throw punches, I wasn’t afraid at all. And now I do that once a week and I love it. But people will say to me, “Wow, that sounds really scary or intimidating. Aren’t you afraid of getting hurt?” I’m always bright red and sweaty, isn’t that embarrassing? And I think no. It is the most physically empowering and hardest, most physically difficult thing I’ve ever done. But it’s amazing.
However, contrast that, comparing that with scenarios where I’m totally qualified, I’m afraid, now I’m a law professor now and we have faculty meetings and every faculty meeting that I feel I should weigh in on an interesting policy point or something important, I feel that sense of fear again. It’s like all the work I’ve done just goes right out the window. My heart starts racing. I blush without any reason. My body starts doing its natural thing to cave in instead of opening up and being in a balanced stance. So in doing that comparative fearlessness exercise, why am I afraid in a faculty meeting where I literally have three decades of experience, I know what I’m talking about, I care. For me, it boils down to a fear of judgment and a fear of criticism.
So to answer your question, the first step, and again, it doesn’t take long to root this out or assess this out, is you compare these scenarios that you dig and peel back the layers of what really the issue is. And for me, it’s that fear of judgment, it’s that fear of criticism, which really boils down to fear of being excluded or rejected or ignored or invisible and whatever labels you want to put to it.
So then what can we do about that? The next two steps are repetitive a little bit of what I’ve talked about with the physical work and the mental work. The physical work is starting with doing that physical inventory, really paying attention head to toe of what happens to you when you’re either anticipating a fear inducing event or you’re stepping into one, noticing your body’s natural reactions to fear. And then by becoming more somatically intelligent and experimenting with different physical adjustments and understanding how our physical bodies drive our thinking and drive our emotions, and I’ve written a lot about both of those angles, we can set up systems to reboot physically in the moment.
And for me, it takes me a minute because I instinctively always react the way I’ve been reacting for several numerous decades. But when I catch myself, I’m able to treat myself like an athlete again or a performer and pause. Shift my shoulders back, open up my arms. If I’m seated, I ground both feet on the floor from standing. I stand like an athlete. There’s that great TED talk by Professor Amy Cuddy about power poses. I know it’s a little bit controversial because the research wasn’t replicated, but I do my power pose. No one notices I sit there in my meetings with my hands on my hips or my hands behind my head and it works for me. So each person has to come up with their own individual reboot, but that’s really important to reboot physically.
And then the next step is we add on the mental layering, we catch ourselves what mental soundtrack have we been playing on a loop for possibly decades. For me it was decades, but for a lot of us it’s messages from again, well-meaning mentors or coaches or teachers that we may have heard or misheard from high school onward that we replay in our minds. For me, every time I walked into a deposition, every time I walked into the courtroom, every time I walked into a negotiation, I was hearing the voice of my middle school science teacher which really was not that helpful. So we have the power to delete those outdated soundtracks about our abilities. Reject messages that for some of us don’t work like the fake it till you make it if that doesn’t work for you, and rewrite your soundtrack that you’ve launched as you’re recalibrating physically.
And there’s other things we can do. For me, I really love the concept of giving ourselves regard like scholar athletes or scholar performers. If we think of who our favorite athletes or performers are, they all have routines and rituals that they do before they step into a performance moment. And I’m not talking about superstition. This is things they do to get their minds and bodies and emotions set before they take the stage or head to the tennis court or the basketball court or the football field or the balance beam or whatever, the boxing ring. They do it and it works for them and as lawyers, we can do the same.
JoAnn Hathaway: In the book, you discussed how other professions address fear and you’ve been talking about those right up until this question, Heidi. But can you specifically pinpoint how the legal profession can adopt techniques from other professions that you haven’t mentioned to help them manage their fear?
Heidi K. Brown: In the book I go into other professions like the medical field, engineering, entrepreneurship, and again sports, where these other professions understand fear as a barrier to performance. Honestly, every profession wants their members to perform at their peak in healthy ways. And what other professions are doing, at least what I observed in my research in medical schools and engineering schools, and in business schools, is fostering a place where when people are learning, they’re encouraged to make mistakes.
Now, as a law professor, I don’t — I’ll just say from my own personal opinion, we don’t create enough space in legal education and training to make mistakes. In lawyering itself, obviously, we want to avoid mistakes. We don’t want to commit malpractice. We don’t want to make mistakes. But we have to create a place in the learning process where it’s okay to make mistakes or it’s okay to ask questions to avoid making mistakes. It’s okay to challenge authority when we feel when we’re worried that a mistake might be made.
But in my experience, I worked in three different law firms, there was no room for mistake making in the law firm, but there also wasn’t room to talk openly about being afraid of making a mistake in order to prevent that mistake from occurring. And what medical schools and engineering schools and some business schools are doing are creating scenarios where we train people to have those difficult conversations around fear, around mistake making. And so we build the skill of communicating and we do not stigmatize those issues. And if we foster communication from all levels of hierarchy so that we’re able to help people work through the fear of making mistake, fear of looking foolish, fear of looking incompetent. Instead, we equip people coming through the ranks and these various professions to have the skills to make smart decisions but also when they’re not sure of the right decision, they’re able to talk about it more openly.
I think my students feel, my law students, feel like the answers to legal questions should be obvious from the statutes, from the case law and the regulations or the contract terms. But we know when you get into the real practice of law, there are tons of gray areas. And that’s where the fear comes in, the anxiety comes in or the mistake making can happen because the answers aren’t always clear. We need to come up with better communication systems to enable open conversations to help more junior attorneys understand how to make decisions that will avoid mistakes happening, but also the fear and anxiety about making a wrong ethical choice.
Molly Ranns: Yeah, so things aren’t always so dichotomous, right? So Heidi, I am not a lawyer. I’m a therapist who specializes in working with lawyers. So I’m so grateful for this conversation today and everything that you’ve brought to the table, and I already ordered your book and I’m really excited to read it. I’m also a huge sports fan, so I noticed right away that there were boxing gloves on the cover and you talked about sports a lot you have today. Are there techniques that athletes use to process performance fears that also might be helpful for lawyers?
Heidi K. Brown: In training with my boxing trainer one on one, I joke with him that every boxing lesson doubles as a life philosophy lesson. Just speaking personally, when I get in my head in a boxing session, and I’m beating myself up for not being able to do something correctly or he’s taught me the same thing 10 times and I still can’t do it or it’s just physically too hard, I immediately go into that feeling of self-doubt. And he’s come up with this new system for me. He says go to your corner and work it out. And I literally walked to the corner and I have a system now where I tell myself three things. I’m like just you’re going to step back into the performance arena and you’re going to focus on three things. You’re not going to focus on 25 things, you’re going to choose three things.
So I’ve been trying to apply that in my training of law students and our future contributors to our profession that we don’t have to do everything perfectly all the time.
We all again, bring an amazing interesting configuration of gifts to the profession. And we can execute those and we can make choices about what we’re going to amplify in each performance moment.
I think what athletes do to answer your question too is they do reflect. They have pregame reflection. They have in the moment, like in high stakes performance moments, there’s not a lot of time for reflection. So they have tips and techniques they do to recalibrate in the moment to get them through that performance. There’s that other athlete term clutch performance. I love that because we can train ourselves to not only perform well in our training and our performance, but sometimes we need to just super focus in a high stakes performance and clutch athletes are the ones who can tune everything out and deliver in those moments.
So there are things that we can learn from athletes about the concept of flow which is when we know we have the skill to meet a certain challenge. And we’re in that flow zone when things are just clicking, time and space seem to disappear. And then there’s a different zone, that clutch zone, where it maybe isn’t as enjoyable as a flow state but we know we’ve done the work, we’ve done the training, we’ve put in all the hours, and we have a system in place that we activate in that performance moment so we deliver on all the different components we need to deliver on.
I’ve written a bit about that before. It takes a while to explain the differences among flow and clutch. But those are some techniques from athletes that I think we can draw upon as lawyers in our training because we have to train before we can perform. And then in our performance is it just day to day performance where we can achieve that flow state. For me, writing is my flow state. For others, it might be negotiating. For others, it might be stepping into a negotiation or a deposition or the courtroom. And then we all are capable of those amazing clutch performances as well. And we can reflect afterwards to see what worked in each of those zones, and then build that into our training regimen for future performances.
JoAnn Hathaway: This has been such great information. However, it does look like we have come to the end of our show. We’d like to thank our guest today, Heidi Brown, for a wonderful program.
Molly Ranns: Heidi, if our listeners would like to follow up with you, and I’m sure they will, what is the best way to reach you?
Heidi K. Brown: I love hearing from listeners and readers, so thank you for asking that. I just designed a website that sort of a companion to the flourishing lawyer book. It’s called www.theflourishinglawyer.org. I’m also available on Instagram at introvertedlawyer, on Twitter at introvertlawyer, and you could find me in LinkedIn as Heidi Kristin Brown. I love, again, hearing from readers about their own journeys through all of these issues, fear, anxiety and performance, in flow and clutch states as well. So I’m happy to talk to anybody.
Molly Ranns: Thank you again, Heidi. I know I’ll be following up. This has been another edition of the State Bar of Michigan: On Balance podcast.
JoAnn Hathaway: I’m JoAnn Hathaway.
Molly Ranns: And I’m Molly Ranns. Until next time. Thank you for listening.
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