Happiness is just a thing called law

An interview with

Mentor to Lawyers

The daily grind of law can be exciting yet challenging, having a profound impact upon the practitioner's well-being. In truth, the environment in which lawyers operate appears at times to have been tailored to elicit feelings of stress. Martin Cole was called to the Bar in 1994 and worked in independent practice and in-house in the UK until 2008 when he moved to Australia. He works with lawyers as a coach and mentor helping them to develop and sustain successful careers and flourishing lives.

TheLawMap: What made you switch from the practice of law to being a mentor and coach to lawyers?

I studied law in the first place because I wanted to understand how systems of control external to myself governed my life. I wanted to know about things like rights, duties, power and accountability and I wanted to help other people make some sense of the law when they needed to.

After about 6 years practice at the bar, I went in-house and I soon found that most of the satisfaction I was getting from my work came from people focused activities such as training, coaching and mentoring, rather from the operational activities.
This development, coupled with some big personal challenges, meant that in recent years I’ve become more interested in understanding how systems within my own mind affect my life. Now my focus lies on how people operate, rather than how the external world operates. What interests me is why we behave in certain ways, why we think the way we do and how we can change ourselves for the better.

So, this led to my interest in moving into coaching, training and mentoring. However, the transition is not complete. It is not easy to shift career direction completely when you have significant family responsibilities, so I am still working managing a team of regulatory compliance professionals whilst building my client portfolio on the side.

TheLawMap: Could coaching potentially benefit lawyers of all levels of experience?

If you’re successful, flying high and fully satisfied with the way things are going for you, then coaching probably can’t do much for you. But if you are not in that happy position, coaching can benefit you whatever your level of experience.

Coaching is a reflective process aimed at helping the participant to reach full potential, maximise performance and bring about sustained change. It can help with issues such as career direction and transitions, performance, leadership and work-life balance or integration.

What matters is that you want to make some kind of change or improvement. You may not even know what you need to change, let alone how to go about it, but if you are willing to commit to the process or at least approach it with an open mind, coaching is likely to be able to help you.

From my own experience of being coached, I would say that that the real power in coaching arises in three ways. Firstly, coaching gives you the opportunity to really sustain your focus on the problem you are trying to solve. This is something we are rarely able to do in everyday life. Secondly, the input from the coach often forces you to think about things in a different way or from a different perspective. This enables you to break through your habitual ways of thinking, which are very often what is holding you back. Thirdly, the coach brings no agenda to the encounter other than (hopefully) a desire to help you. This is rare as however well-meaning your friends, family, or colleagues are, they almost have some kind of stake in any significant changes you might want to make and they may not always be best placed to challenge your thinking or provide dispassionate feedback.

One caveat is that you need to find a coach you can connect with. We’ve all met people who seem to be a on a different wavelength to us, and whilst you want your coach to bring something different to the encounter, somebody who doesn’t get you at all is not going to be the right coach for you. It is therefore always best to have an introductory conversation for half an hour or so to check whether a particular coach is likely to suit you.

TheLawMap: It is commonly known that a lack of work life balance leads to stress, however, some of us feel that we work better under pressure. What are the conditions that may lead to a stressful life for a lawyer and in career terms, what could be the long term implications of leading a stressful life?

Without some level of demand being placed upon us our lives would not be worth living. We gain satisfaction in life by meeting challenges, mastering skills and delivering on the obligations we have towards others. This exerts pressure on us, but when the goals we are pursuing are attainable, albeit with effort and application, they provide us with a sense of motivation, hope and engagement. This is good stress and is what makes you feel that you work better under pressure.

Bad stress arises when we perceive circumstances as a threat rather than a challenge. Then we experience the fight or flight response that we and other mammals evolved originally to help us survive life-threatening situations. In modern life, this response tends to arise not only when we are faced with genuine threats to our survival, but also when we sense that we don’t have the resources to cope with what is required of us, or when we are thwarted by circumstances outside our control. Thus we experience stress when transport delays make us late for court, when we don’t have time to complete important work before a deadline or when family difficulties arise.

The real problems arise with repeated exposure to this kind of stress, in large part because it leads to a strengthening of the synaptic connections in the part of the brain, that handles our emotional responses - the amygdala. This strengthening sets up a vicious cycle, whereby the amygdala becomes more sensitive and more reactive to circumstances that may be perceived as threatening. We then spend increasing amounts of our time in the unnatural, heightened state brought about by the stress response.Such chronic stress reactions can lead in the long-term anxiety and depression and contribute to physical changes such as increased blood pressure, clogged arteries and even obesity.

It seems to me that there are many aspects of legal practice that inherently mean that stress is a real problem for lawyers. These include workloads, billing systems, time constraints, financial constraints, the high expectations of clients and the high stakes riding on the outcomes of much of what we do. Although there are practical steps lawyers can take to change some of these external factors (for example with managing workloads and expectations), on the whole there is little that can be done to change the reality of legal practice.

I therefore think that that lawyers have to combat stress from within, by self-management. This means focusing on your internal resources, changing your perception of circumstances as they arise, managing your responses to perceived threats and taking active steps to dampen down stress responses as they occur, interrupting the cycle of stress reactivity. There are plenty of ways to do this – such as mindfulness practices, relaxation techniques and working on emotional intelligence.

As somebody who has personally suffered the consequences of chronic stress, I can testify to the fact that this kind of self-management works. It requires effort and usually some guidance, but it can change your life.
TheLawMap: Based on your extremely interesting and diverse path in life before deciding to study law at the age of 29, from a coaching perspective, do you have any advice for aspiring lawyers about what they could do as students to better prepare for a career in the legal profession?
I’ve thought a lot about this - I’ve even written an e-book about it which is available from my website. On the whole I don’t think legal education and training equip lawyers with all of the various attributes they need in order to thrive in their careers.

Of course, if you are reasonably bright and you do the work, you’ll gain the technical knowledge and practical skills you need. But, lawyers also need the capacity to be able to apply their technical skills effectively, consistently and sustainably over the long term - what I think of as ‘contextual capabilities’. They need to know how to work collaboratively, how to be persuasive and how to provide practical, workable solutions to their clients’ problems. They need self-awareness, empathy and relationship management skills. And, as discussed above, they need to know how to survive in the face of the pressures that are inherent in the way that law is practiced. So my advice to aspiring lawyers is that they should try to develop these contextual capabilities alongside their technical capabilities.

Secondly, and this is again related to self-awareness – I think aspiring lawyers need a clear sense of their strengths, their values and their interests and should then plan how they want their career to unfold based on those three things.  It is when you lose sight of these fundamentals that your career can drift into places that you don’t really want to be in. It can then be hard to set yourself back on course.

TheLawMap: If you could change one thing about the legal profession what would it be?

I’d change the culture that, in some areas of the profession, makes it hard for lawyers to display any signs of ordinary human frailty. It needs to be okay to admit that you are feeling the pressure, that you need a break or that you need more time to take care of your family. I’d also like to see more emphasis on educating lawyers on how to take care of themselves and their careers.

TheLawMap: Is there a personality from the past or present within the ranks of the legal profession or the judiciary who you admire the most?

I had a lot of help when I got started from other members of my chambers at Lamb Building in the Temple. But there are no well-known legal personalities that I would necessarily point to.

These days my greatest admiration is reserved for the ranks of lawyers dealing with public funded criminal, family, housing, immigration cases and the like. They turn up day in and day out to help people who would otherwise not be able to help themselves, even though their own jobs and living standards are constantly being undermined.



Martin Cole is the author of Good Practice – the 10 essential elements of a modern legal career, in which he develops some of the ideas referred to in this interview. 

He moved to Australia from UK with his Australian born wife in 2008. He has two daughters and now lives in the bushy northern suburbs of Sydney. For someone who grew up in Croydon, in South London, the sight of wallabies grazing on his back lawn in the mornings still makes him think he’s entered some kind of parallel universe.  He follows Crystal Palace FC and these days listens mostly to jazz, blues and soul music as well as whichever Disney power ballad his 6 year old daughter currently favours. His twitter handle is @Lexecoach.

The first six words to the title for this interview is the title of a song by Harold Arlen called 'Happiness is just a thing called Joe'.