Uncertainty is prevalent in the study and practice of law, and strategies from the “uncertainty navigation model” can help.
For lawyers, having to navigate uncertainty regularly starts with the first reading assignment in law school. Uncertainty grows as students wait for their grades to come out after their first set of final exams and every round of finals thereafter, until the monumental bar exam – and it persists into practice. Students often agonize about whether they passed or failed and can create serious doubt whether they are cut out to be lawyers. The bar exam presents one of the most stressful waiting periods as students must wait anywhere from 6-12 weeks to find out if they can practice law, get the job they have been dreaming of, move to a preferred city, and pay their rent.
After passing the bar, lawyers encounter many other stressful waiting periods: Related to their employment (the job search, performance evaluations, partner track), and legal proceedings that have inherent waiting periods built in (waiting for discovery, waiting for opposing side to respond, waiting for a verdict). In addition, lawyers must reassure their anxious clients as they await the outcome of their case. While it may be a routine part of the job, for many lawyers, waiting can create a heightened sense of anxiety and distress and can lead to burnout and professional dissatisfaction.
Of course, not just lawyers struggle with awaiting uncertain news. Anyone who is waiting for test results from a biopsy or waiting to hear if there are going to be layoffs at your job knows how distressing it can feel to have to wait. Psychologists have explored why awaiting uncertain news creates so much anxiety. James Shepperd, Ph.D., a social psychologist from University of Florida, has studied how individuals respond to waiting and receiving challenging information. His research has shown a predictable pattern of thoughts leading up to the receipt of potentially bad news.
Specifically, people tend to display more optimism in the beginning of the waiting period but tend to lower their expectations and shift to a more pessimistic view at the “moment of truth” to protect themselves from disappointment in the face of potentially bad or even life-threatening news. This protection, called “bracing” is designed to reduce being caught off guard by expected negative news.(1) In other words, if I predict that I am going to fail the bar exam right before I receive my results, I won’t be surprised and can therefore plan accordingly. Bracing relates to shifting expectations but falls short of helping people manage the anxiety that inevitably occurs when encountering difficult waiting periods.
Unlike bracing which focuses on solely on preparing for bad news, people can manage their anxiety by assuming the best possible outcome. Kate Sweeny, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at University of California, Riverside, has studied extensively how people cope most effectively with intense uncertainty. She developed the “uncertainty navigation model” as a framework to understand the strategies that people use (including thoughts, feelings, and behaviors) to get through intense waiting periods.(2) She studied different populations including law students waiting for bar exam results and women who underwent breast biopsies and were waiting for these results.
Research on health issues has demonstrated that maintaining an optimistic view, even under difficult situations like waiting for test results has several health benefits including increased immune functioning, reduced risk for hypertension, and faster recovery from illness. Sweeny’s study in 2014 on law students who prepared for the California state bar found those students who were optimistic about the results had lower levels of anxiety and rumination.(3)
At first, it can be very difficult to have an optimistic view, especially for lawyers who are trained to look for the potential negative outcomes as part of their jobs or clients who have had a lot of turmoil in their lives. Therefore, it can take practice to believe that positive outcomes are even a possibility when waiting for news. To move toward this optimistic way of thinking, it can be helpful to rehearse positive outcomes through journaling, visualization, and setting goals for the future based on a desired result. Harnessing the power of optimistic thinking can be further strengthened by working on these skills in conjunction with therapist utilizing cognitive behavioral techniques. By continuing to rehearse these positive outcomes, our minds develop an alternative mental pathway to the “bracing for the worst” strategy.
Emotion regulation is another strategy to cope with uncertainty recommended by Sweeny, which helps us focus on what we can control amid the uncertainty. Emotion regulation refers to the ability to modulate or regulate difficult emotions including anxiety, fear, and anger. By focusing on how to cope with the anxiety itself, rather than the outcome of the news, people can often find relief because they are not relying on something outside of their control.
Getting into a state of what researchers call “flow” is one of the most effective emotion regulation strategies for coping with uncertainty.(4) We can find “flow” by engaging in an “intrinsically rewarding activity that is just challenging enough to match one’s skill level and that provides clear goals and feedback”. Sweeny found that engaging in flow-inducing activities including exercise, games, puzzles, sports, work, and social outings, boosted individual’s sense of emotional well-being while awaiting for important news including bar exam results, internship and residency matches for medical students, and even during quarantine through the pandemic.(5)
Mindfulness meditation is another strategy that was equally effective in promoting well-being during difficult waiting periods. Mindfulness refers to paying attention, in the present moment, for a specific period, non-judgmentally to the breath, the body, or other objects in the environment like sounds. Mindfulness during uncertainty is associated with more positive emotions and a reduction in depression. In my own clinical practice, I have found additional emotion regulation practices including self-compassion meditations (practices designed to reduce shame and increase self-kindness), yoga and Tai Chi/Qi Gong that create strength, balance, and flexibility along with improved focus and concentration, and support groups where individuals recognize that they are not alone in their struggles can be powerful tools when during difficult waiting periods (e.g., support group for bar preparation).
In summary, it is very difficult to wait; especially for life-changing news like passing the bar, receiving results from medical tests, and submitting job applications. This waiting period can cause significant emotional distress including anxiety and depression. There are no one-size fits all ways to cope with uncertainty, but there are some key strategies that can reduce the intensity of the distress.
Accept that uncertainty is challenging and having compassion, patience, and understanding for ourselves and others during difficult waiting periods. Sometimes just offering this acceptance to ourselves or our clients can be helpful, for example, saying to a client, “It is really hard to wait for a verdict” rather than simply trying to reassure everything will be fine or downplay the difficulty.
While most of us tend to “brace” for the worst when waiting, optimism about the outcome is more effective in reducing anxiety and worrying. This can be particularly difficult for legal professionals and takes practice.
Emotion regulation strategies that can soothe the nervous system play a key role in managing anxiety during waiting periods. These might include breathing exercises, massage, counseling, and support groups.
Engaging in rewarding activities that allow the mind to be absorbed in something challenging and goal-oriented (“flow”) can increase well-being during uncertainty. This is especially true as the “moment of truth” for finding out the answer nears, and anxiety hits its peak.
Mindfulness meditation, yoga and tai chi, and self-compassion can also reduce anxiety and increase well-being during uncertain times and help keep our minds focused on the present moment.
From waiting for bar exam results, verdicts, or outcome for job interviews, lawyers are confronted with prolonged periods of waiting. By learning to navigate uncertainty with optimism and self-compassion, lawyers can help themselves and their clients to manage this difficult time with more ease, less anxiety, and improved sense of well-being.
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1 Sweeny K, Shepperd JA. Do people brace sensibly? Risk judgments and event likelihood. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2007 Aug;33(8):1064-75. doi: 10.1177/0146167207301024. Epub 2007 May 14. PMID: 17502417.
2 Sweeny K, Cavanaugh, A. Waiting is the hardest part: A model of uncertainty navigation in the context of health news. Health Psychology Review, Vol. 6, No. 2, September 2012, 147: 164
3 Sweeny, K., & Andrews, S. E. (2014). Mapping individual differences in the experience of a waiting period. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106(6), 1015–1030.
4 Rankin, K., Walsh, L. C., & Sweeny, K. (2019). A better distraction: Exploring the benefits of flow during uncertain waiting periods. Emotion, 19(5), 818–828.
5 Sweeny K, Rankin K, Cheng X, Hou L, Long F, Meng Y, et al. (2020) Flow in the time of COVID-19: Findings from China. PLoS ONE 15(11): e0242043.