Deadly Rejections: How Attorneys Survive & Move Forward with Their Goals

Harrison Barnes

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Summary: Use law firm rejections to make yourself a stronger attorney.

  • To know what to do when you’re facing rejection by law firms or supervising attorneys in order to save your career, sanity, and health.

Rejection Is Your Friend?

We’re told rejection is a good motivator, teacher, a path to growth, a blessing, and also an often difficult, circuitous dream maker. So, when it plops you into the cold deep like an Alka-Seltzer, be grateful. You’ve been handed a gift!

Anna Wintour, Editor at Vogue magazine and legendary fan of being fired (once anyway) famously said: “I recommend that you all get fired. It’s a great learning experience.”

Another fan of rejection, Steve Jobs, was fired from Apple—the company he started—before his epic return to become everyone’s favorite Master of the Universe. He said:

“I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again …it freed me to enter one of my most creative periods.”

More often, for the humble lawyer, rejection doesn’t feel like the best thing that could ever happen to you. It doesn’t feel like a gift at all. It feels like a great weight has dropped on you by the universe.

Think of rejection as preparation for what’s ahead?

As a lawyer, your relationship with rejection begins early on: starting with not getting accepted to your preferred law school, not getting picked in the Hunger Games-style clerkship season,” or being rejected by the top firm in your practice area. And these rejections all occurred BEFORE you actually starting working. As an associate, you face the stresses of law firm work and the long hours. Such is life in the legal industry. We also know that rejections come with mental health consequences in addition to the physical ones. Studies show that rejection triggers our body’s responses in a way that can increase risks for asthma, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, and depression.

And yet, the stress of rejection is good. Give yourself some props: you have survived your first denials for desired attorney jobs or lateral attorney positions—you already have countless rejections under your belt. It was all great preparation for the even greater challenges that are waiting ahead.

You’ll need to remind yourself of this as you fight to meet your billable hours’ requirements and get work from assignments from senior attorneys and partners. Eventually, you will face rejection from clients as you try to build a book of business and grow your practice. No matter how many years of experience you have or how senior a partner you are—rejection is as inseparable from the legal field as billable hours and yellow pads.

Rejection Hurts Your Brain

There’s a reason why you take rejection so hard. It’s not just you; it’s evolution.

To be turned out by the tribe during our hunter/gatherer past could’ve easily become a death sentence. Imagine surviving alone in forests full of saber teeth, galumphing mastodons, and whatever herds of nightmarish megafauna. Evolutionary psychologists figure that rejection pain evolved as the brain’s early warning system for preventing a life-threatening ostracism. Because so much was at stake, the pain had to be serious. So strong, in fact, that the pain of rejection runs along the same brain pathways as does physical pain. The pain is in fact so intense, it can drop our IQ by 25% and analytical reasoning by 30%.

The cure? Reconnection with others: even better when it’s those who care most about us. It can soothe the emotional pain of rejection. The proof is in the recalling: When you recall an experience of feeling significant physical pain, nothing happens. Those pain pathways don’t get excited. But recall a difficult rejection and those feelings will dredge up the agony all over again.

We’re social animals. Our brains prioritize rejection. To sum up: The intense feeling of actual pain you feel isn’t just you. It’s your primitive brain paying it forward.

Special pains that are just for attorneys

Common characteristics shared by Supreme Court Justices and top-rated attorneys often included:

  • top law school credentials;
  • picked for celebrated clerkships;
  • experience in top law firms;
  • to finally be swept up into clouds of glory while winning star-making, landmark cases or completing huge brand-name transactions.

For everyone else who isn’t one of them, every point along this map could feel like a searing rejection. And, yes, not getting into that law school or clerkship or top law firm job you so dearly wanted will hurt—intensely.

And there’s more—you’ll face:

  • not making partner
  • not getting assigned work
  • being harshly criticized by supervising attorneys
  • receiving poor reviews
  • getting laid off or fired
  • losing cases or having deals fall apart
  • having clients complain about your work or responsiveness
  • loss of clients
  • slowdowns in workloads
  • sacrifices in your personal life
  • dissolution or failure of a practice or law firm
  • and on and on.

Look at the horizon in front of you—there will be many miles of hard road ahead in your legal career. You can count on it. And any lawyer that can’t work through such rejections won’t be a lawyer for long.

But here’s the thing: Being an attorney isn’t easy nor should it be. To be a good attorney you’ll need to withstand rejections—however difficult – because, ultimately, suffering through them may be among the easiest challenges you’ll have to face in your legal career.

So then, how do you move ahead after facing a crushing rejection? How do you keep it together so you can still concentrate on achieving all your big goals? At the risk of sounding facile, the answer is quite simple. And like most simple answers, it can be very hard to do.

An Attorney’s Guide to Sucking It Up after Rejection and Pushing On:

Jack Canfield, “America’s #1 Success Coach” according to entrepreneur.com says that rejection can often feel unworthy, like you don’t deserve what you’d hoped to achieve. Never give in to that. It’s destructive and debilitating and only leads to fear. Fear will make you stop pushing for the legal positions you want most because you won’t want to feel rejection like that again. As described above, there’s a good reason to feel that way: the pain is very real. For dealing with this, Canfield suggests imagining your rejection as merely an ephemeral setback. He suggests that 1) it’s not about you, and 2) it may have more to do with timing that anything else. Maybe it’s that you’re not what they’re looking for right now. Not to say it will happen if you try again later, not with them at least, but that it could happen somewhere, sometime, with someone else. It’s just not going to happen today. Be patient.

When you stop indulging feelings of rejection, something extremely important happens. Canfield says: “It frees you up to spend your time and energy pursuing other opportunities that will give you the result you seek.”

And this: “Rejection can also be an extremely valuable source of information that will help you achieve your goals faster.” Here’s what he means by that:

  • What if you don’t get that promotion to a senior associate? This is an excellent opportunity to follow up with your practice area leader or supervising partners to discover where you were lacking. Where in your practice do need to improve? What skills or experience are you lacking? This can be vital for ensuring you have growth opportunities in the future.
  • This is important: With a rejection, you don’t actually lose anything. You may not have gotten what you wanted but your situation probably isn’t worse off. You are generally where you were before the process started. Being rejected is a learning process. Even if you don’t get the “Yes,” you may discover some information in the experience that’ll make it easier for you to get that answer in the future.
  • It’s a numbers game: You have to keep asking. You have to believe your time will come—sometime—and you will get the answer you’re looking for. Believe that there’s a “Yes” out there waiting for you. You just don’t know when.
  • Reject rejection. Remember: If you don’t ask; you don’t get. When someone says “No,” you say “Next!”
  • Remain unattached to the outcome. As Bruce Lee said: “You must be shapeless, formless, like water…When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot…Become like water, my friend.”

Ultimately, there is no “cure” for rejection. There’s nothing to do but pursue the possibilities of more rejection. This is because overcoming the risks and achieving success in the process will bring a massive restorative boost in mood and, importantly, confidence. Getting there will require a reset of your mindset. It’ll require “walking through your fear” until you find that your strength and fear are out of sync with reality. Fear self-magnifies and there’s no way out but by force of will. You have to decide to take that walk and face whatever happens. And do it again and again.

Fear is a lie

We know fear of rejection exists to save us from exile. But whatever it is about—rejected for a job, rejected from a law firm, rejected for law firm partnership, on and on—none of this will exile you from your family and friends or even your lifestyle. As was said above, nothing has changed, only the frustration of your desires. Once you can perceive rejection in this way, you understand that fear is a lie.

If you walk through your fear, when you do finally get to a “Yes,” the strength and confidence you’ll feel will be even greater. Remember: There is no other path to happiness but persistence.

Pain isn’t: Let yourself feel it

Don’t desensitize yourself to the pain of rejection; something that’s all too easy to do when you’re deep in the abattoir of finding a law firm job or surviving the law firm environment. There’s nothing to do but this: cope and then overcome. Use your rejections as a tool for growth, a fuel for your legal passion—use it to make yourself a stronger and more capable attorney.

About Harrison Barnes

Harrison Barnes is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and a successful legal recruiter. Harrison is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. His firm BCG Attorney Search has placed thousands of attorneys. BCG Attorney Search works with attorneys to dramatically improve their careers by leaving no stone unturned in job searches and bringing out the very best in them. Harrison has placed the leaders of the nation’s top law firms, and countless associates who have gone on to lead the nation’s top law firms. There are very few firms Harrison has not made placements with. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placements attract millions of reads each year. He coaches and consults with law firms about how to dramatically improve their recruiting and retention efforts. His company, LawCrossing, has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.

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