How To Help Employees Suffering From Law Firm PTSD


Law firm PTSD. Many of us have seen it, especially with new employees. The story typically has a happy beginning: You find someone amazing to join your team, you’re thrilled to have them on board, and they jump in with both feet. On the surface, things look great. But soon, you start to see the telltale signs of law firm PTSD: They’re really jumpy or highly defensive. They’re terrified of doing anything without asking 15 different ways if they’re doing it right. And while it can be unnerving to discover your new employee is clearly suffering from the effects of poor treatment from previous employers, I have good news: You can tailor your response to provide your employee with a better experience and increase the likelihood that they will stay and flourish. 



If you answer yes to any of these questions regarding your behavior as a manager, I highly recommend you read this entire blog post to the end: 


  • Do you get triggered when another person is clearly upset by your actions?
  • Do you become anxious when you meet with employees that are extremely sensitive?
  • Do you tone down your message or alter what you have to say? 
  • Do you shy away from giving negative feedback?

Doing any or all these things can lull your employee into a false sense of security. Then, when something happens that you absolutely must address and your response is more aligned with how you would normally respond as opposed to how you’ve chosen to respond with this person, you’re oftentimes setting yourself AND your employee up for failure. This can cause a lot of frustration and turnover in your workplace.



So how does avoiding these behaviors help our struggling employees? And what should we do instead? Let’s dive into these 3 strategies for alleviating the symptoms of law firm PTSD: 


1. Give your new employee time to adapt and to heal.

a) Remember that they see themselves as the “new kid on the block”. 

They’re coming into an environment where everyone around them is more established in your business than they are. 


b) Recognize that they’re going to feel the need to prove themselves. 

New employees will try to find their way to what you, as their manager, wants. And since they’re new, what you want is still an enigma to them. So, they’re likely to see any task through the lens of “this is an opportunity for me to screw up.” 


c) Realize that, for many people, starting a new job triggers dysfunctional needs that can develop in states of distress. 


One example of a dysfunctional need is the desire to people please. This can be dangerous because oftentimes your employee is not just saying “I want to please my boss because I want to keep my job.” They’re saying, “I want to please my boss because it means something about me if I don’t.” A second example is when an employee needs to be right no matter what, oftentimes becoming aggressive or confrontational. In this state, they often won’t let themselves be educated or grow. 


2. Don’t take anything personally.

In his book The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz talks about letting go of the need to personalize every activity. Not everything is about you. When you start to see people’s behavior and reactions as being about who they are and not about who you are, it becomes a lot easier to move forward from negative behavior. And remember: Being comfortable in yourself gives your employees the gift of being able to express their feelings and have you acknowledge them, without going that extra step of taking on responsibility beyond yourself.


3. Coordinate and accommodate your response.

When you see someone who is more nervous than you think they should be, or they open up to you about some past experience (“My old boss got on to me for XYZ”), remember that your response has to be the anchor for this person. When someone is experiencing situational stress (e.g., they are super nervous about having to take a day off or dropping off a letter 10 minutes later than you ask for it), consistency in your responses will be key. Avoid the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde syndrome. Lack of consistency is going to say to them that the problem is much worse than they believed it to be, or that they’re now at greater risk. This will make it exponentially harder for them to develop the trust required to say, “OK, regardless of what I went through in the past, that’s not what I’m dealing with here. I now feel like I’m better able to express myself and talk to my boss.” With consistency, you’ll probably start to see some of that tension dissipate.


Take a minute to really consider these strategies and the role you play in your employees’ journey to overcoming their law firm PTSD. Jot down some ideas of how you’ll implement them going forward. When done right, this will be a gamechanger for your employees and provide them the opportunity to grow a stronger sense of wellbeing in your business. 


Want to dive into more detail about how to help employees overcome law firm PTSD? Check out this episode of the Crushing Chaos with Law Firm Mentor podcast.