Lawyers Concerned For Lawyers: Executive funk

Issue January/February 2018 By Dr. Jeff Fortgang


I think I’m actually a very capable lawyer (doing largely criminal defense, but also some family law) — that is, I come up with creative and on-point strategies, and I form a good initial relationship with my clients. Unfortunately, I’ve gotten myself into some trouble with the board because of what I’d regard as foolish and superficial errors, and I’m feeling pretty bad about it. For example, I made a misstatement of facts because I had overlooked a simple bit of research. In another case, I was a couple of days late for an appeal filing simply because I’d gotten wrapped up in another case that was rather interesting but less urgent. My wife did some reading, and tells me she has figured out that my problem is with executive functioning. Does that sound right? Is there something I can do about that?


Psychologists have long used the term executive function to refer to what you might think of as the “adult” part of your brain: in charge of planning, getting an overview, keeping multiple images and thoughts in your head, inhibiting expression of emotion at inappropriate times, weighing pros and cons of decisions, etc. This capacity is in some contrast to equally important other sides of a person, like venting feelings, spontaneity, creativity, improvisation, and, perhaps, joie de vivre.

Life would be boring and maybe even robotic if all we had was executive function, but things can get out of control without it. You mention that you are good at developing creative strategies — probably by thinking “outside the box,” and that’s a good thing. On the other hand, with no one around to think “inside the box,” you are losing track of timing, priorities and important details. These different capacities are handled by different parts of your brain, and you need both. 

On the other hand, it’s natural to be stronger in some faculties and weaker in others. We don’t necessarily expect an actuary to be the next Jackson Pollock (although I’m sure it could happen), and we’re not surprised when rock musicians haven’t kept good track of their taxes. Although executive function problems can be found in a number of clinical conditions, they are probably most closely associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD (so-called even though it can come with or without the hyperactivity). Some authors regard ADHD as essentially a disorder of executive function, while others regard them two conditions as separate but overlapping. 

While one thinks of stimulant medications to help with some of the other features of ADHD, such as distractibility, impulsivity and hyperactivity (although even for ADHD these medications are not universally effective), when it comes to the kinds of executive function problems that you describe in your practice, I would think first of (a) coaching and (b) relying on others who are by nature more organized. The purpose of coaching would be to help you develop and consistently implement techniques designed to compensate for your executive function. Simple examples of such techniques might be daily rituals (e.g., “I always do this first before I do that”) and checklists. (As physician-author Atul Gawande has described, even the most talented surgeons were found to make safety errors and showed vast improvement when they were able to accept the utility of simple checklists to help them remember small but important tasks.)

Relying on others may be an even more powerful tool, when used in a systematic way. You don’t say whether you work solo or in a firm, but having someone in a position of assistance to organize materials for you, remind you of steps that have not been taken, keep track of scheduling and chronological priorities, etc., can be invaluable.

While software with alert systems can be a boon to lawyers in general, there is a good chance it won’t be sufficient for you, unless utilized by someone else on your behalf. Of course, there are obstacles to developing this kind of constructive reliance. Solo practitioners often feel they cannot afford an assistant (although such a person might well pay for him- or herself through increased productivity and timely billing), and lawyers, in general, tend to avoid assuming a help-seeking position. But if you can find a way past those concerns, the right kind of auxiliary assistance can allow you to focus on your strengths — even a virtuoso concert pianist needs someone else to turn the pages and, probably, to remember to bring the sheet music. 

Dr. Jeff Fortgang is a licensed psychologist and licensed alcohol and drug counselor on staff at Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers of Massachusetts, where he and his colleagues provide confidential consultation to lawyers and law students, and offer presentations on subjects related to the lives of lawyers. Q&A questions are either actual letters/emails or paraphrased and disguised concerns expressed by individuals seeking LCL’s assistance. Questions may be emailed to