Journal of Leadership and the Law

The Importance of Resilience and its Applications for Law School Students

By Christopher Leupold, Ph.D.

Dr. Christopher Leupold is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist and an Associate Professor in Elon University’s Psychology Department. In addition, he serves as the Faculty Leadership Fellow and Executive Coach in Residence at Elon University’s School of Law.

In the book, On Managing Yourself, which is a collection of selected Harvard Business Review articles and part of the esteemed HBR’s 10 Must Reads series; author Diane Couto discusses the concept and importance of personal resilience and its importance in overcoming obstacles and personal challenges. In her article, ‘How Resilience Works,’ Couto explains the reality that a key to one’s personal and career success is the ability to contend with adversity in a productive way. While the frequency and degree of personal adversities that people face can certainly vary quite dramatically, it is unfortunately a virtual given that everyone will at certain points be forced to endure experiences that they would otherwise rather not. This is most certainly true for law students, as even the very top students will endure tough times when they might perform poorly on an assignment or exam, receive word that they were not selected for the internship they had their heart set on, or in the semesterly throes of studying for final exams. Even from a nonacademic perspective, there is a reasonable chance that at some point they might experience serious personal relationship issues, contend with major health problems, or even struggle managing financial matters and debt. All of these are just a small sampling of the many very real and fairly probable ‘challenges’ that exist in the universe of a law student; and if a law student has been blessed to somehow avoid any such setbacks or worries, he or she will undoubtedly face some form of crisis later in his or her career or personal life.

However, the point of Couto’s article is not one of gloom and doom about the unavoidable difficulties life presents to all of us. Rather, her focus is on how certain people somehow successfully overcome even the most horrific situations whereas others simply cannot overcome relatively minor ones. Just as people differ on a myriad of characteristics like intelligence, interpersonal sensitivity, and work ethic; they also differ in how they bounce back from adversity. Some fall prey to self-pity and a sense of hopelessness, and ultimately succumb to defeat and give up trying. However, there are other people who, despite perhaps having every right to wallow in such self-pity and hopelessness, somehow stay remain strong and refuse to be broken. For a student looking to thrive in law school and legal career afterwards, a very relevant and timely question should be, ‘What do I need to do to be in the latter category?’

Couto’s article references the existential writings of Viktor Frankl, a Viennese physician who survived three years in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. In his famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl reflects on how he managed to survive the daily horrors he experienced and how he preserved his will to live when there was really no indication that his life situation would ever change. The beatings, the starvation, the loss of family and friends, the unlivable conditions, the pervasive threat of death, and a litany of other unfathomable realities led many prisoners to lose their will to live, let alone their personal identities. As Couto outlines, the key to Frankl’s survival was his level of resilience which was admittedly of epic proportions. While the grind of law school presents very real challenges and truly serious adversities, I am fairly certain that no law student, even in the worst of times, would compare his or her state to Frankl’s. That said, if Frankl found ways to be resilient in his state, it would behoove law students to take note of his practices as a means to enhance their own resiliency in their own worlds.

Couto nicely summarizes how Frankl’s and others’ resilience are a function of three critical behaviors. The first thing that resilient people do is “…coolly accept the harsh realities facing them.” In other words, they objectively accept and directly face the situation as real without pretending it is better (or worse) than it actually is. This is in contradiction to a widespread belief that resilience is largely a function of optimism and positivity. Frankl commented on how fellow prisoners who tried to comfort themselves through wishful thinking and unrealistic beliefs that they would be soon rescued ultimately caved because these unfounded hopes and expectations were repeatedly dashed. To be clear, the type of acceptance of reality of which Couto writes is not by definition a pessimistic or defeatist perspective. Rather, it is taking a completely objective stock of one’s situation, regardless of how daunting or even terrifying, and acknowledging the reality of it. For a new law school student, this might be exemplified by acknowledging that the next few years are going to be extremely intense and require hundreds of hours of demanding readings and analyses; that many personal sacrifices will be need to be made in the process; or that professors will publicly challenge them in class as means to enhance their development. Disregarding established truths and realities like these or pretending or hoping that they ‘won’t be that bad’ is essentially creating a false sense of reality. At the same time, the student should recognize that tens of thousands of students have endured these same challenges before and at the same time not exaggerate these challenges to the point they become consumed with an unrealistic fear. Simply put, in order for one to contend with setbacks or crises, he or she must first have an accurate view of reality in order to manage himself or herself in it.

According to Couto, once resilient people accept their reality they must then somehow find personal meaning in it. In short, even in the most horrific situations, resilient people look for ways to endure their fate by giving meaning to their existence. Even if a person accepts his or her reality, he or she may in essence choose to simply try to ‘wait it out’ until things improve. The problem with this is that the individual is essentially giving up his or her vitality to live in the moment. Frankl had extremely little direct control over his environment and fate; however, he sought to find ways to give positive meaning to his experience. During his internment he made the commitment to, in essence, assume the role of a sociology researcher. He made it a point to carefully study and reflect on the daily atrocities that he observed, and then commit this data to memory as if preparing a formal case study to share with audiences at a later date. As a trained scientist, these activities gave him a sense of purpose and a meaning to his situation. In turn, this sense of meaning and purpose enabled him to not only withstand his reality but also retain his identity by controlling his destiny within the narrow parameters that he could. Others prisoners who simply resigned to the belief that they had no control over their lives eventually lost themselves and their will to carry on. Without an identity and sense of purpose, it is little wonder why people would simply give up. Again, the extent of Frankl’s conviction and resilience in this vein are almost incomprehensible, and certainly far beyond the trials and tribulations of law students. However, most law students would surely concur that they periodically experience dark periods where they may feel so consumed by pressures and anxieties that they begin to question their own identity and sense of purpose, and whether they are equipped or even willing to handle these burdens. Resilient law students would not necessarily just ‘buckle down’ and focus on their tasks, and obviously would not simply give up in the face of adversity. Rather, during these times they would push to find the personal meaning in their work that is personally motivating to them. For example, recognizing how experiencing such stress as a student now might better prepare them for managing larger-scale crises that they will experience in their careers. Or perhaps the fear of being cold-called when unprepared for a class might be interpreted as an opportunity to practice demonstrating poise on the spot or a serendipitous reminder of the importance of preparation for a future lawyer. Or maybe struggling with managing loans and finances might be seen as an opportunity to develop a new and realistic understanding of how future clients feel when working through bankruptcy or facing personal losses. Personal meanings can vary greatly among students; however, for resilient people they serve as beacons of motivators to persevere in a way that retains their core identity. To be clear, a suitable meaning is not always obvious and can require deeper digging and even some creativity. However, this sense of true meaning must be identified.

The third characteristic of resilient people, according to Couto, is an ongoing effort to continually improvise and explore novel approaches and ways of doing things. Part of being in a trying situation is not having the luxury of necessary resources or support to function as one normally would. As opposed to being thwarted by frustration or being stymied by the lack of things that they would like to have or think they need, resilient people have an uncanny sense of resourcefulness and improvisational ability to leverage and optimize what resources they do have at their disposal. One can think of the deserted Robinson Crusoe faced with a choice between driving for innovation as a means to survive versus simply accepting a lack of resources as an excuse to give up. Resilient people look to create opportunities that are not immediately obvious and push themselves to explore all avenues and possibilities until they find ones that will help them fulfill their meaning. Simply working harder and ‘being stronger’ aren’t enough. A sincere drive to make the most use out of everything on one’s hand and to creatively find new avenues to accomplish goals is what best prepares individuals to aggressively face setbacks and increases their odds of overcoming them. Perhaps the resource most valued for law students is time, of which usually seems to be lacking. A resilient student may accept the daunting reality that his or her many labor- and time-intensive requirements must be completed in a finite amount of hours each week, and even find meaning in this challenge because he or sees how the situation will better equip him or her when the time for bar exam preparation arrives. To ensure resiliency, the student must take the next step and seek new ways of how they might create greater efficiency and innovative ways to maximize use of their precious time. Actively exploring new resources, experimenting with different study techniques, creatively carving out small pockets of time for studying that may have otherwise been unproductive, readjusting household schedules to better coincide with the flow of the semester, and so on might be ways in which resilient students ‘improvise’ with what they have.

In summary, law school is by nature a demanding experience that can test the mettle of the most academically gifted and committed students; it is quite common to hear law students and even lawyers describe their studies as the most challenging time of their life. The simplistic advice of pushing one’s self to work harder, maintaining an optimistic attitude, or trying to grin and bear in hopes that the time will pass quickly are not of themselves characteristics of resilience and certainly not what enabled Viktor Frankl to survive his experiences, let alone find meaning in his life that enabled him to preserve his identity and grow as a person. Developing resilience is not a passive activity, but rather one that takes extreme discipline and demands that individuals not take the easier and perhaps more natural paths of either collapsing in despair or creating a cavalier and false sense of optimism. For budding lawyers, developing resilience will certainly make their law school experience a more positive experience as well as better equip them to manage the future challenges they will later encounter in their legal careers. Viktor Frankl is an extreme example of the power of resiliency in the most horrible of circumstances. But his story should serve as a source of inspiration and reminder that any challenge or crisis, personal or professional, can be managed and overcome through resilience.