At the beginning of the year, managing partners at leading law firms were reasonably optimistic about growth in 2020—and then COVID-19 happened. In the past few months, there have been layoffs and salary reductions, deferments, and even rescissions of incoming associates’ offers. For those of us (myself included) who graduated in the wake of the 2008 recession, it feels like Groundhog Day, but worse. This time around, it’s not only an economic crisis unprecedented in its global reach and speed is afoot, but also a terrifying global pandemic. The only thing that seems certain in a sea of information and misinformation, is that nothing is certain.
Amid such turbulence, uncertainty, and social isolation, it’s a scary time for everyone—both those of us with jobs and those out of work. Many who are still employed experience acute prolonged anxiety, fearing that the ax may come down at any time. The very understandable gut instinct for those wishing to keep their jobs is to work harder, become 100% amenable “yes” people who never say no to anything, first to start the day, last to turn out the lights. This solution is not unlike the gut instinct of those caught in an undertow who try to fight the current, exerting more energy swimming against it. Unfortunately, this approach directly leads to precisely the most feared outcome—drowning. In fact, the expert recommendation for those pulled in an undertow is not to fight the current, but rather let it carry you out, turn 90 degrees, and swim back to shore when the waters feel calmer.
There is a powerful lesson here. When we’re in stressful situations, our gut instinct is often less than optimal, and the optimal response is seemingly counter-intuitive. Stress fogs our judgment, puts blinders on us, and cuts us off from others and ourselves. Indeed, many of us respond to stress by hunkering down, isolating ourselves, believing that it’s “every man for himself.” This cuts us off from diverse perspectives that can provide us with clarity and insight and harms the social aspects of our being that are not only integral to our experience and wellbeing as humans, but our capacity as lawyers.
In 2010, just a few days before graduation, my BigLaw offer was rescinded due to economic hardship at the firm, which has since gone defunct. Much to my surprise, I ended up moving across the Atlantic later that year to Tel Aviv, where I found a job as an apprentice at a big firm. I was in my mid-20s, and the rescission left deep wounds I’ve only been able to articulate in recent years. Most, unfortunately, it led me to believe that losing my job was always around the corner, and that to keep mine, I had to be 100% amenable, bite off more than I could chew, and work harder than anyone else. That conviction stayed with me for much of the decade. Every time I pushed back or expressed discontent, I was terrified that I had just sealed my fate and would soon be out the door without a job. Even though my offer had been rescinded because of the financial recession and not my performance or aptitude, for years I carried it around as a personal failure on my part. Believing that I was not okay or not as okay as others, I believed that to keep a job or advance I had to work harder than others. I eroded any personal boundaries I had and gave my whole self to work, and by the time I left in early 2019, I was burnt out and realized I had been for years.
Looking back now, I understand that it didn’t need to be this way and that I suffered more than I needed to. I don’t blame myself. I accept and recognize that everything happened as it needed to. But I now understand how faulty my approach was, and I’m sharing what I’ve learned in the hopes of staving off more pain. Being indispensable doesn’t mean being essential to everyone but yourself. Bending over backward isn’t a recipe for success, and even if it might do the trick in the short-term, it’s far from sustainable. Being indispensable comes down to multiple factors which I’ve outlined below—being open and amenable is only one of them. No less critical, being indispensable requires that we remain indispensable to ourselves—that we understand that we have nothing to give when we’ve eroded ourselves to a fine pulp. Willpower is a finite resource. Stamina and clarity require wellbeing, a sense of calm, understanding, adaptability, that we align our goals and decisions, and manage our energy wisely to be able to better dispense of it. The following tips outline how to be indispensable to your team and your colleagues without losing your center, feeling stressed out, panicky. You can—and should—slow down, do one thing at a time, rest when you need to, and create more balance in your life.