United States: Learned Helplessness

Last Updated: June 2 2014
Article by Stephen Mabey

I ran across the term "learned helplessness" recently in an article by Dr. Larry Richard. Being a pragmatic kind of person I admit my first reaction was less than supportive, thinking this was simply another variety of sociology pabulum we were being fed to excuse ostrich-like behaviour by lawyers.

So typing in the name of the psychologist from the University of Pennsylvania Richard referred to in his column, I wandered onto a web page called the Positive Psychology Centre at the university which clearly supports that Dr. Martin Seligman is a noted authority on the topic.

So nowhere near brainy enough to understand the scientific explanation, I sought out the layperson's definition of this phenomenon which was as follows:

"Learned helplessness is the condition of a human or animal that has learned to behave helplessly, failing to respond even though there are opportunities for it to help itself by avoiding unpleasant circumstances or by gaining positive rewards and may result from a perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation."

Then several pieces of a puzzle many firms had not been able to solve started to snap into place. The puzzle perhaps can be most simply described in a question recently raised by a client: "Why, if my lawyers don't have the same billable hour demand as in the past, would they not spend the freed up time on business development efforts to generate the billable hours?"

Now the above is just one symptom and due to the breadth and nature of his practice, Richard describes in his article " We need a Chief Resilience Officer" a litany of behaviours law firm leaders raised with him recently regarding what they are seeing in their lawyers. These include:

  • "Malaise, complacency, burnout, an attitude of hopelessness, weariness, a 'giving up' mindset;
  • "Increased conflict; not playing nicely in the sandbox;
  • "Failure to reach out to the best talent to staff a matter—sticking instead with their most familiar colleagues;
  • "Increased evidence of low resilience responses—irritability, defensiveness, thin-skinned-ness, easily hurt, oversensitive;
  • "Disengagement; passivity; biding their time;
  • "Perfectionism—'If I can't do it perfectly, I won't do anything at all'; making excuses for not putting out the effort;
  • "Diminished creativity; and
  • "People being less proactive in using their 'investment time'—waiting for work to come to them instead of seeking it out."

It is not a quantum leap to draw a connection between these behaviours and symptoms of learned helplessness.

The phrase "may result from a perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation" will certainly resonate with members of the legal community. With firms expanding, legal markets contracting, external pricing issues on the rise, and compensation levels falling it is easy to see why many rank-and-file partners could perceive they have no real control over their destiny.

So what can law firms do to combat this phenomenon of learned helplessness in a particular group of individuals that are more prone to it than the average population? Personality traits identified for lawyers are believed to exacerbate their susceptibility to and impact of learned helplessness.

Resilience (or the ability to roll with the punches and bounce back) is defined as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, threats, or significant sources of stress. The American Psychological Association holds out the position that resilience is a learned behaviour and can be developed in anyone.

The factors it identified that contribute to resilience include:

  • Having caring and supportive relationships within the firm;
  • Capacity to make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out;
  • A positive view of yourself and confidence in your strengths and abilities;
  • Skills in communication and problem solving; and
  • The capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses.

While conceding law firms are not your most normal, nurturing environments, there are things the management and leadership of firms can do to help build resilience in their lawyers including:

  • Connect with the lawyers on a regular basis: Relationships that are supportive and not overly critical or threatening are vital (directly engage);
  • Avoid communicating an unsolvable crisis at every turn: Yes, communicate openly the challenges facing the firm but at the same time present what can be done to solve the challenges (practical pragmatism);
  • Work with lawyers to set realistic goals/waypoints as issues are dealt with: Most issues did not arise overnight and have been in the making over time and similarly there are no quick fixes (long-term perspective);
  • Take decisive steps to deal with the issues: In many law firms problems are ignored and lawyers are frozen out as they are left to drift and rely on their own self-awareness to see what the issues are and try to solve them (proactive);
  • Nurture a positive view of the lawyers struggling: Don't attribute publically to struggling lawyers a lack of work ethic, inadequacies, etc., but seek to accent their positive traits that led to them being part of the firm in the first place (supportive advocacy); and
  • De-stigmatize and openly encourage access to licensed mental health professionals: Sometimes no matter how strong we think we are, obtaining outside professional advice is critical to creating a realistic strategy for building resilience therefore encouraging access to a firm's or law society's employee assistance plan in a non-judgmental way is necessary (professional help).

Firms' management and leadership will need to demonstrate emotional quotient and get out of their offices and into the offices of lawyers struggling with the phenomenon of learned helplessness as it requires personal contact and cannot be done remotely. A common trait of firms most likely to successfully address the issue and re-engage a productive complement is flexibility.

Until next month, as Timothy B. Corcoran said so well in a March 28 column:

"Contrary to what you may have heard, the law firm model isn't dead. Nor is law firm growth. But law firms and law firm leaders stubbornly adhering to outdated models are gasping for their last breath. The modern law firm can thrive, but not if we pretend it's still 2007. Or 1995. Or 1975. The future is now. You can't do nothing. Are you ready to lead?"

First Published in Canadian Lawyer September 2013. Copyright © Applied Strategies Inc.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Stephen Mabey
In association with
Related Topics
Related Articles
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Registration (you must scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of www.mondaq.com

To Use Mondaq.com you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions