Pachydermal Paranoia

by Phoebe Churches

Elephant and dog

You need a ‘thick skin’ to be a lawyer – but is this sort of resilience purely dispositional or can it be acquired?

My brother quipped recently that his every utterance contained ‘layers of meaning, and meanness’. Growing up with this, I have developed both a thick skin and the expectation that almost everything has a hidden meaning.

This started me thinking about environments where there is positive survival value in becoming immune to many provocations. I am not impervious to all types of needling of course, as my partner will readily attest. However in the cut and thrust of my professional life – shields are up and you will have to work very hard to get a rise out of me. No doubt my years working as a social worker also honed my ability to keep ‘other people’s stuff’ at a safe arm’s length.

Firstly, why do I suggest that thick skin is an essential quality in a lawyer?

Working as a lawyer has many challenges – but one of the biggest tests for many is remaining confident in the face of criticism. That doesn’t mean rejecting all feedback. Confidence is not arrogance. Self-confidence allows you to recognise weaknesses and fix them. Reframing criticism as something that will just make you better, both disables its debilitating sting and fuels self-improvement.

However, facing down criticism in an adversarial milieu is a different matter. I am talking about learning to zone out the white noise that is simply designed to undermine your confidence and get you to give in.

Your competence, skill and judgement will often be challenged. Even during negotiation in an alternative dispute resolution setting – you need to be resistant to the games which will inevitably play out as each party tries to get their best outcome. In the typical day of a working lawyer, we may need to remind ourselves that our clients are generally not misleading us, we are not thick or gullible and the claims we represent are not querulous. So when our opponent suggests we should just drop our case, that we are wrong and there is no merit to our claim – will we give in?

Well, not unless they are right.

How do we build this resilience, if you didn’t grow up with a troll for a sibling?

There are really two ways you can deal with criticism as you develop – you can absorb it, let it soak into your bones, weaken your confidence and sap your desire to challenge yourself. Or you can create a barrier which protects your inner world.  These are decisions we often fail to make consciously – but there is nothing stopping a conscious decision to develop or enhance our resilience to criticism at any time in life.

Number one tip – is that life is not a popularity contest. We don’t need constant approval to be happy. That’s it. Move on.

Next – nothing is personal. People generally act in self-interest – they aren’t really trying to tell us something we need to know about ourselves, they are trying to get what they want. Why do some things just roll off the proverbial duck’s back and other things cut to the quick? This is about knowing your ‘red flags’. The tiny (or sometimes screaming) inner voice which articulates the beliefs we have about ourselves. If you grew up thinking you were gullible, not good at logic or too emotional for example – criticisms on these points are going to score direct hits. If you have a strong inner belief that you are intelligent and rational – being called stupid and emotional is going to just seem silly.

It’s that simple. No, really it is. We can always question our unexplored self-beliefs and reality check them against what we know to be true. It is the unexamined character of the little inner voice that makes it so destructive. These things are no more than cognitive-emotional habits. Practice makes perfect.

Finally, could a thick skin be the enemy of empathy and compassion in our work? It would be easy to see someone like Julian Burnside as a bundle of porous empathy. However he has to face fierce criticism for his efforts. Thick skin is also about a boundary between you and everyone else. Perhaps paradoxically, when you are involved in the most empathic types of lawyering – you will need the best boundaries. I volunteer once a week in the Human Rights Law clinic at the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre and the risk of burn out is all too real.

We can be of public service only as long as we have resilience in the face of manifest systemic unfairness and the raw horror of some people’s lived experience.

Ultimately I don’t know whether it was growing up with a mean brother or 25 years of social work which thickened my skin the most.

Maybe I was an elephant in another life.