Laura Reilly teaching.

Law professor’s lessons on resiliency resonate beyond the classroom


School of Law professor Laura Reilly believes in the power of resiliency.

Before discussing anything else, she starts her Legal Analysis, Writing, and Research (LAWR) class for first-year students with lessons on resiliency — why it’s important for law students and attorneys, and how to cultivate it.

“For every class after that,” wrote Samantha Gier in the UB School of Law Responds blog for its summer fellows, “the first ten minutes were dedicated to the same topic.” An outsider, Gier wrote, might think it’s a “little odd” the class focused on emotional strategies before writing strategies. But Gier soon saw it made perfect sense.

“Before you can become a good researcher, writer or advocate, you must possess the ability to protect yourself from the negative effects of stressors,” Gier wrote.

“It serves no purpose if you can write a perfect twenty-page memo on an ideal day, if you can barely scrape together two words on days you are stressed. Why? Because law school and internships are one big ball of deadlines, imposter syndrome and long hours (I suspect being an attorney is the same), leaving little time to work in ideal mental conditions. Unfortunately, this means you need to be able to work even when everything else is working against you.”

Reilly, who started teaching the LAWR course in 2002 and whose experience includes employment discrimination litigation and clerking for a judge, believes the same resiliency lessons that helped her first-year students function in the summer of the COVID-19 pandemic apply to others. UBNow asked Reilly to share some of her resiliency lessons.

What do you mean by resiliency?

Resiliency is the ability to keep bouncing back from adversity in an emotionally healthy way, and to actively learn from, adapt and manage sources of adversity.

Why do you stress the need for resiliency to your first-year law students? Why is it so critical to success in the legal profession?

Students struggle with adversity and often don’t have the tools to rebound from it. Resilience can be developed, but must be practiced, so I want to discuss it with my students ASAP so they can practice it for three years in a (relatively) low-stakes environment. 

The legal profession is rife with adversity. Lawyers work long hours, juggling multiple matters, often under short deadlines. Clients present them with bad facts, opponents challenge their arguments, courts disagree with them. There is little wiggle room for mistakes, and clients and bosses can be demanding, sometimes irrationally. This is just some of what my students have ahead of them, and I want them ready to respond to this adversity.

If it’s important to developing lawyers, what good could come from others cultivating resiliency?

Experiencing adversity is universal. We can all benefit from learning how to anticipate and respond to it in healthy ways. As life gets faster and more stressful, it is critical to have strategies to purposefully and thoughtfully slow it down and keep a realistic perspective.

You have a list of “resiliency strategies.” Can you share some of those?

Some topics/strategies/exercises we discussed to promote resilience were:

  • On the first day of class, we collectively created a word cloud that illustrated how we had each overcome a seemingly insurmountable challenge.
  • Practice four-count (box) breathing.
  • Create self-affirmations.
  • Pay attention to the present moment purposefully.
  • Time management/establishing habits and routines.
  • Do not compare, judge or evaluate others.
  • Focus tightly only on what you can control.
  • Reframe internal narratives, thinking, phrasing; i.e., “I get to go to law school,” instead of “I have to go to law school.”
  • Confidence and self-reliance.
  • The fiction of perfection.
  • Kindness to others boosts the giver’s resilience.
  • Practice gratitude.
  • Capture the pleasure of everyday life.
  • The importance of creating one’s own definition of success.
  • Sleeping, eating and connecting with others gives us the energy and grounding to be resilient.

I also presented 40 “testimonials” I received from attorneys, providing examples of how they had exercised resilience after their own professional struggles.

You say “resiliency” is different from “grit.” How is that difference significant?

“Grit” refers to an ability to sustain one’s interest in long-term goals and defer short-term gratification. “Resilience” refers to an ability to keep bouncing back from adversity and to actively learn from, adapt and manage sources of adversity. Resilience is more important to be able to thrive in the legal profession because of how routine adversity is in the profession. I want my students to anticipate it, bounce back from it and learn from it.

Is there anything else you would like to share about your resiliency experiences with your students?

I noticed that after teaching our resilience strategies, students maintained a calmer focus and more realistic perspective on their work, and showed more compassion to each other. This was a noticeable difference compared with my prior students, who I did not discuss these resilience strategies with.