Resilience and recovering from setbacks

Part of our role as lawyers is to deal with the consequences of the mistakes and omissions of others. We expect, and argue for, high standards in ourselves and our colleagues. So, what happens when we let something slip or do not perform as well in a particular situation as we (and perhaps others) would like?

This article explores some of the issues that arise in these situations and how we can learn to manage their impact. We also look at resilience, particularly how it can be developed to provide you with the tools to take setbacks in your stride.

Perfection is not part of the job description

No matter how conscientious we are and how meticulously we apply ourselves in carrying out our role, the fact is that things can, and do, go wrong. And things can go wrong in a variety of ways – from errors in the law to problems with time limits and service provision and so on.

If you’re reading this and thinking “Not me, I’ve never made a mistake” then you may want to think again. What about your relationships with your colleagues such as your line reports and managers as well as key stakeholders. Have you never failed somewhere in one or more of those relationships?

The truth is that we cannot hope to get everything right no matter how many systems and processes we employ to reduce the risk of getting something wrong (we’ll consider some of these later). Really, the only way to entirely limit the risk of something going wrong is to only do things that are completely within our comfort zone (and even then there are no guarantees). If you’re intent on learning, developing or innovating in any respect, the risk of failure increases and you will fail now and again.

Career setbacks

Setbacks don’t only arise because of our own errors or failings. Sometimes we’ll be knocked back because of a career disappointment. You’re hopeful of that pay rise, bonus or promotion but it doesn’t happen. You apply for a role you really want, one that will represent real progress in your career and provide you with a bigger challenge. But you’re not even selected for interview. Or, perhaps worse, you reach the final two in a long selection process only to learn that the other person got the job!

As lawyers in organisations, we’re aware that they’re subject to change – restructuring, mergers, takeovers and downsizing can sometimes seem like they’re never off the agenda. And they can sometimes have adverse consequences for our jobs for reasons that may have little to do with our own abilities.

Coping with setbacks

Given that we may face work and career setbacks at different times in different ways, we can spend a considerable amount of time and energy on trying to never make a mistake or put a foot wrong, something that, ultimately, is beyond all of us. So, while accepting that (as professional lawyers) we need to be careful, considered and exercise sound judgement, a better strategy may be to find ways of coping with setbacks when they (inevitably) occur.

Here we look at five strategies.

1. Owning and sharing mistakes

If you’ve dropped the ball and made an error, own up. Don’t blame others for something you did (or didn’t do). As lawyers, it’s often the thought of admitting an error that is worse than the consequences of the error itself. And, of course, we may well feel shame or embarrassment that we’ve messed up. But dwelling on an error won’t help us or put it right. After all, as the saying goes, “a problem shared is a problem halved”. So, don’t sit on it and fret – own up and put your energy into putting it right, if you can.

2. Learning from setbacks

If you’ve made an error, question why it happened and whether it’s something you can avoid next time. Perhaps you need a better checking or record keeping process. Or you may need to work on and develop certain skills that cost you that promotion or meant that you did not handle a management situation as well as you might. Whatever the situation, look for the cause and learn how you can do better next time.

3. It’s not about you

Although the error or failure may be yours, it doesn’t mean that you’re a failure. It just means you screwed up. Clearly, if you keep making the same error over and over, you may have a problem that needs addressing. But most people make mistakes when they’re taking on a bigger challenge and often our most important lessons come from our failures rather than our successes. As such, it’s important to recognise that an error does not mean that we are a failure. Equating the two only serves to undermine our self-esteem and self-confidence.

4. Get back on track with a quick win

You’re feeling bad because you made a mistake. The temptation might be to play small and not take on any new challenges. Instead, look for an opportunity to shine, and take it. Take on a new piece of work, or a project, and do your best to excel. Show off your best qualities and provide a top class service. Not only will this quickly re-establish your reputation in the eyes of others (if needed) it will also act as a real boost to your confidence.

5. The value of a mentor

Mentors can really help us to deal with workplace problems. Being able to speak openly to someone who’s experienced the same sort of challenges as you have can really help to put things in perspective. You’ll realise that even the most experienced and able suffer setbacks. A good mentor (or mentors) will help you see that setbacks are an inevitable part of our career development and that it’s how we respond that is the key. If you don’t have a workplace mentoring scheme (or even if you do) look for an experienced mentor who can relate to and help with the career challenges you’re facing.


If the practical steps listed above are important and useful in overcoming setbacks, resilience is more about developing qualities and adopting behaviours that will support you in achieving your career goals and ambitions without becoming derailed by setbacks. It’s about learning from challenging situations to become more self-aware and stronger in the face of adversity. Resilience is a quality much in demand in leadership roles. It can be learnt and developed.

What makes us more resilient? Given that we all suffer setbacks and disappointments, why do some people seem better able to take things in their stride and not be derailed when something goes wrong?

Those who have studied what resilience is and how it can be developed (such as Jane Clarke and Dr John Nicholson in their book “Resilience, bounce back from whatever life throws at you”) have highlighted certain key themes that characterise the quality of resilience.

Resilient people are often disposed to solving problems by finding solutions to new problems, anticipating problems and making sound judgements. This is all familiar territory to in-house lawyers. But what are some of the other themes of resilience that might be said to categorise resilient lawyers. Here we consider eight.

  • They understand how others see them and are not blinkered by their own appreciation of their abilities. Getting feedback from others matters as it makes us more self-aware. Otherwise we may tend to over-exaggerate or under-estimate our capabilities. To build resilience don’t be afraid of client and peer feedback, 360 degree appraisals and psychometric profiling in getting a better understanding of your strengths and weaknesses.
  • They dial down the scepticism. As a lawyer, it can be useful to sometimes be the most sceptical person in the room. After all, part of your role is to question and probe plans and initiatives and to examine why things go wrong, when they do. But over-cooked, scepticism can turn into a “No” mindset or one that focuses too much on the problems and risks at the expense of the bigger picture.
  • They know what they can influence and what they cannot. This is an important factor in being effective and in handling stress. Focusing on what you have little or no control over leads to frustration and wasted effort. Building resilience means being more flexible and creative in your thinking and allows you to better focus your energies, harness your arguments and, ultimately, better serve the interests of the organisation, your colleagues, and yourself.
  • They’re motivated and remain so in challenging times. Everyone’s motivation can take a knock when something goes wrong. But resilience is built on an understanding of why you do what you do and why it matters to you. If you’re self-motivated you won’t be waiting for others to inspire or motivate you. Rather, you decide what actions are required and get on with them until the task or project is completed.
  • They’re optimistic and calm in a crisis. Even when bad things happen, they have the ability to see the bigger picture and the positives. They’re able to separate their own emotions from the drama of a situation and not appear overwhelmed or panicked.
  • They take criticism well. While nobody relishes criticism, if it’s constructive it can be very helpful in developing our self-awareness. For this reason, resilient lawyers do not simply rebuff criticism but rather seek out constructive feedback, positive and negative.
  • They do not avoid conflict. While lawyers may have a reputation for relishing an argument, this is not the same as engaging in difficult or challenging discussions, when needed. Sometimes it’s absolutely necessary and appropriate to make a robust case whether in a legal, business or management context.
  • They have strong networks which they’re not afraid to reach out to. In-house lawyers understand the value of strong collaborative relationships with colleagues. It’s also important to have people in your network who you can rely on at times of stress and disappointment, just as you will support them.

  • References

    “Resilience – bounce back from whatever life throws at you” by Jane Clarke and Dr John Nicholson 2010

    “Five Ways to Make Peace With Failure” by Susan Tardanico 2012

    “Four Things Resilient Lawyers Do Differently” by Paula Davis-Laack, Larry Richard, and David N Shearon 2016

    To read the first article in our 'About my Role' section titled 'What is the role of the in-house lawyer' click here.