‘Murphy’s Law,’ or How an Aphorism Can Sum Up the Legal Mind


By Erna Womble

In the legal profession, we’re trained to envision and prepare for worst case scenarios. We devote significant time and mental resources to thinking about catastrophic outcomes. But how do we balance this often necessary professional mentality with our daily lives?

I had a mild epiphany the other day when I found myself prefacing an email to a fellow lawyer with the words “unless Murphy’s Law has prevailed…”

Murphy’s Law. The idea that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. (Or, if you’d rather hear Matthew McConaughey’s slightly more optimistic take on it, click here. But I digress.)

It wasn’t intentional on my part, but in acknowledging the prevalence of Murphy’s Law, I realized that I had snagged a common thread that runs through most legal minds. Perhaps many lawyers and judges, regardless of their natural proclivities or personality types, may share a chuckle of recognition at our customary professional pessimism.

Why catastrophizing can be a lawyer’s saving grace

It’s easy to roll our eyes at ourselves, but don’t legal professionals invariably entertain the type of negative thoughts that are the foundation of Murphy’s Law?  From the perspective of decades spent in the trenches in the legal profession, it seems an inevitable part of life: if there’s anything to go wrong, it will. Or it just might—and if it does, you’d better have already thought of it the day before yesterday.

Lawyers are trained, in both the classroom and the school of experience, to think this way. It’s our job. We have to figure out the pitfalls so we can preclude having our clients fall into the pits. We are paid to engage in “what if” thinking in order to protect our clients.

But here’s the rub: all our training seems to fly in the face of what countless psychologists and counselors have overwhelmingly defined as key to mental health and happiness. Namely, stay positive, dispel those negative thoughts, and replace worry and anxiety with positive thinking.

Following the advice of the old song to “pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile” is undoubtedly the way to a happier, stress-free existence. When it comes to the legal profession, however, being jauntily carefree can also likely be the path to professional ruin.

If we did that – if we consciously made it our practice to sidestep troubling thoughts in dispensing legal advice to our clients, preparing for trial, or working on high-stakes transactions – we know very well that it wouldn’t be long before we’d be in anticipation of malpractice claims!  Now THAT prospect is depressing. It’s downright anxiety-provoking…

Finding a balance: it doesn’t have to be all or nothing

On the surface at least, this worrywart-like requirement for success in our professional lives is directly at odds with what the experts say is necessary for personal happiness, well-being, and fulfillment.

But let’s not stop there. Legal professionals are intelligent people, accustomed to working around challenges and roadblocks, arriving at creative solutions. That’s the core mission of our Professional Vitality Committee (PVC): doing the often daunting work of curating resources useful in finding the balance that allows us to excel in our careers while living vital, fulfilling lives, which in turn enrich our efforts in any undertaking.

Lawyers don’t have to ditch anticipating what can go wrong. Yes, we do have to guard against negative scenarios – the stakes are simply too high for us to have the luxury of unending positivity in our professional lives. By the same token, reflexively doing what’s commonly referred to as “awfulizing” or “catastrophizing,” without restraint, can induce paralyzing stress which is corrosive to vitality.

A stark difference between legal professionals and other professionals is that ours is an adversarial profession. Yet lawyers are people too and are just as subject to the negative consequences of high anxiety. The life of a legal professional can induce stress – and relentless stress exacts a heavy toll. The Socratic method encountered in law school (not always a pleasant experience!) taught us to face the reality that the rewards of life as a lawyer come with immense pressure.

Knowing that, however, doesn’t always mean we come out of law school equipped to handle the rough and tumble. It’s a fact of legal life that the responsibilities, to name but a very few, include:

  • managing constant demands on our time with the ever-increasing need to respond quickly;
  • dealing with difficult people seemingly intent on making life miserable;
  • coping with disappointments and seemingly insurmountable obstacles;
  • juggling schedules we often have little control over;
  • actively heeding the ever-present need to study and stay razor sharp and competent to serve as zealous advocates for our clients; and
  • having difficult conversations with clients when appropriate.

Further, such professional stressors don’t take into account the challenges that also face many lawyers and judges in their daily personal lives. How, then, can we keep calm and carry on with resilience, professionalism, and vitality?

Professional vitality

It’s easy to fall victim to the belief that a successful legal career and a joyful personal life are mutually exclusive. But the PVC is committed to strive toward dispelling that notion. There is a realistic balance, and working to find it enhances our professional and personal lives.

Solutions lie in discovering tools to engage in disciplined positive thinking that help us understand how to minimize the negatives and maximize the positives.

For me, a quote attributed to American philosopher and psychologist William James was an eye-opener I have pondered and applied professionally for decades. “The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes.”

Sometimes, all it takes to turn a stressful situation from a debilitating hindrance into a catalyst for success is a subtle shift in thinking. That’s what makes the James idea so powerful. We, as legal professionals and leaders, can alter our circumstances, infusing vitality into our professional and personal lives, by means of small but deliberate adjustments to our patterns of thought.

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer. Putting our minds collaboratively to the task, we can contribute toward a potential paradigm shift in our profession through empowering today’s legal professionals to achieve professional vitality – that state of professional success that works in tandem with a healthy, full personal life. In President LeAnn Brown’s words: “vitality is the state of being strong and active; it is the power of enduring, the capacity to live and develop.”

A successfully negotiated balance between professional and personal life will likely look different for each of us. Whether you are reading this as a member of the Professional Vitality Committee or not, I encourage the NCBA community to share your thoughts toward the work of the PVC:

  • Are you fully aware of the ways in which your professional practices shape and spill into your personal life?
  • What steps are necessary for renegotiating that balance?
  • What resources can we help offer to young, intermediate, and seasoned legal professionals who struggle under the stresses inherent in the legal profession?
  • What tools would enhance the ability of our NCBA members to infuse vitality into their personal and professional lives, in turn enhancing their effectiveness as lawyers and human beings?

An active legal mind may have to think of Murphy’s Law as second only to the law of gravity, but how can we still do so without letting it control the mental attitudes that constitute our lives?


Erna Womble
Clearly Bespoke Strategies, Inc.1
Chair, Professional Vitality Committee, NCBA

1 A Strategic Advising Company
Retired Partner Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice LLP (now Womble Bond Dickinson (US) LLP)