In one of life’s ironies, the very things that make a great lawyer may also make a lawyer miserable. Growing up, we were overachievers seeking extra credit, going the extra mile and doing whatever was needed to get the highest grades. Achievement equaled value; if we did not get more than 100 on a test, we failed. This is the lawyer’s curse of perfectionism: The quest for excellence metastasized into an obsession with results.
Lawyers have crashed and burned because they couldn’t be the best. Their psyches can’t handle not billing the most hours, not winning every issue and they’re constantly raising the bar of what they consider success. Their opinion of themselves is based entirely on their level of productivity.
They are workaholics, ignoring their health to get that result that proves their value. They tell themselves that if they work hard and sacrifice, then one day they will be happy. That “one day” never comes.
We have replaced our angel godmother with an autocratic nun with a ruler. We are obsessed with control in a profession that doesn’t deal in absolutes. It is not enough to provide excellent legal representation; our clients want results—results that, at times, can challenge our integrity and ethical obligations. The ends justify the means as long as our reputations are enhanced.
The problem lies in the fact that we have externalized our sense of self and have become überco-dependent. We are people-pleasers and have totally disempowered ourselves to accommodate others. Fear of failure dictates our work ethic, not the sense of accomplishment for a job well done. Lawyers live in a world in which a typo on page 60 of a 200-page document proves they are incompetent. We are pole vaulting over mouse turds.
The obsessive concern about what other people are thinking differentiates perfectionistic lawyers from their peers who are emotionally and mentally healthy. The saying among mental health professionals is, “What other people think of me is none of my business.” A perfectionistic lawyer’s saying is, “What other people think of me is my only business.”
This perfectionistic thinking causes suffering: anxiety, rigidity, closed-mindedness, defensiveness, lack of trust (isolationism), blame and shame. I remember representing a client in an appellate argument before the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Opposing counsel was competent and seemingly confident. It was clear during the hearing that my client would win. Immediately after the hearing, the opposing counsel went into the restroom and vomited for 20 minutes. I could relate.
Lawyers are supposed to conduct due diligence, analyze what could go wrong and help their clients avoid any potential risks. I call this worst-case scenario thinking. We have put ourselves into the position of claiming power over the future and claim to have control over things we can’t control. Even worse, we apply this mode of thinking to our personal lives and to the people we love, then seeming autocratic and unfeeling. We appear to “know it all” and lack flexibility.
When you add these problems to the awesome responsibility lawyers already bear for their clients, it can be a recipe for disaster. Lawyers often have to make life-changing decisions for their benefit. The pressure normally felt by attorneys to make these decisions can be amplified by perfectionist tendencies of unbearable levels. The fear of making a mistake is multiplied by the impact it could have.
I have strategies to get a perfectionistic lawyer off the ledge. Their worlds do not have to involve all-or-nothing thinking. There is a long and wide space between perfection and failure.
Often, perfectionistic thinking leads to isolation. We don’t want to hear advice or criticism; we think we can self-critique better than anyone else. Having colleagues or friends to talk to and reason with can make a huge difference in your sense of self-worth and avoiding doubt. After all, if you are totally obsessed with what other people think, it is wise to gather people around you w have your best interest at heart. I have friends, therapists, colleagues, retired judges, gym rats and other people whose opinion I value with whom I can talk on a regular basis. You can call it your tribe, your posse, your village. Call it what you want, but you need one to get over yourself.
Talk to your clients and your colleagues. Find out what they expect, and tell them what you can deliver. Be honest. Telling your client what they want to hear is not going to make your task any easier. Be clear about what you can do and what you can’t do. This requires a heart-to-heart talk with yourself. This is especially true when you are attempting something that is new or untried. Be sure your client understands and is on the same page if you try something risky. It is very helpful to let your client know the law can be imprecise and fluid, and you are not a fortune-teller nor are you perfect. Then, what you accomplish will much more acceptable.
Mental health experts advise that resilience is more important than perfection. Every case may require a change in direction or an adjustment in course to get to the desired resolution. A lawyer faces challenges every day, and how he or she deals with them are what makes an excellent lawyer. Denying challenges leads to the self-doubt that plagues all perfectionists. Life happens when you had something else planned.
Many perfectionists are all-or-nothing. If they don’t get everything they want, they quit. What they need to understand is that the pursuit of excellence always involves setbacks, rethinking, flexibility. When you lose a pawn, that is no reason to quit the chess game. When we are faced with a loss of control, we have to focus on what we can do. Small steps always lead to desired outcomes. Rather than saying, “I’m done,” say, “What’s next?”
Mental health experts agree that denying your emotions is much different than being objective. As lawyers, we seek to be objective, but this can turn into avoiding our feelings because perfectionists don’t need feelings. We can only process and heal negative emotions by acknowledging them and then having self-compassion. We are emotional creatures, regardless of whether we want to be. Repressing emotions will only lead to more serious health issues.
Adding those two words “you can” is like adding the valve on a pressure cooker. How we perceive our work and our life can drastically change based on how we think about them. Life is complex and uncertain, as is the practice of law. The first step of recovery from perfectionism is knowing the difference between excellence and perfection. Being excellent is something we can control, being perfect is not. Results are often dependent on many circumstances over which we have no control, and perfection is based on results.
You don’t have to be perfect, just be a perfect you.
James Gray Robinson was a third-generation trial attorney specializing in family law for 27 years in his native North Carolina. Burned out and emotionally spent practicing law, he quit in 2004 and spent the next 16 years doing extensive research and innovative training to help others facing burnout and personal crises to heal. In 2017, at age 64, using the tools and strategies he learned, Robinson passed the Oregon bar exam and is again a licensed attorney. Learn more about his work at lawyerlifeline.net or email him at [email protected]
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