Here is the second in a series of excellent pieces from Tom Cox about hard lessons learned from a law practice that has now spanned well over 4 decades. This one–about perfectionism–is one we lawyers desperately need to hear.
Early in my legal career with a large law firm, I was present at a large meeting of firm lawyers, when a young partner commented to the group that, regardless how intelligent and diligent we might be, we were all certain to make mistakes and that we should not pretend otherwise. The words were barely out of the young partner’s mouth when he was gently but clearly rebuked by one of the firm’s most respected senior partners. “We can accept nothing short of perfection in ourselves and our performance,” he said, “because our clients expect and demand nothing less from us.” Moreover, he opined, even to discuss openly within the firm the possibility of error would foster a climate that both tolerated poor performance and increased the likelihood of its occurring.
The senior partner’s comments chilled me, not because of his observation regarding client expectations, but because deep in my soul I knew that I was not perfect and could not attain perfection, in the practice of law or in any other aspect of my life, regardless how much effort I invested. At the same time, I knew that I, like many in our profession, met the definition of a perfectionist, at least with regard to my personal evaluation of my own performance. As a result, I lived and worked in almost constant fear that I would commit an error, while knowing that my own deficiencies (i.e., my lack of perfection) doomed me to inevitable failure and exposure. Yet the fear of committing any mistake also limited and stunted my own progress as a lawyer and a person. Not only did I frequently bog down in minutia when I should have been focusing on the bigger picture and broader objectives, but my fears also discouraged me from welcoming and taking on new and exciting challenges.
Perhaps the most soul-crushing consequence of attempting to maintain a charade of perfection, however, was the inevitable isolation and fear of acknowledging and sharing fully of oneself with friends and colleagues. In a culture in which any mistake equates with failure and incompetence, then no weakness or fear of potential failure may be acknowledged, leaving each person to languish in, and perhaps be consumed by, constant anxiety about being exposed as a fraud.
It was only when one of my inevitable mistakes (or at least what I thought was a mistake) raised the possibility of negative consequences to a client, however, that I finally came to recognize that my self-imposed isolation was unnecessary and self-destructive. I discovered a wealth of support and encouragement from colleagues from whom I had anticipated little but disapproval; several were quick to provide their own heretofore undisclosed stories of how their own screw-ups had cost them sleepless nights and much self-flagellation, and how they had eventually moved forward. In retrospect, I greatly regretted that I had not reached out to mentors, colleagues and friends much earlier to share mutual fears and insecurities about the inevitable disclosure of our own imperfections. In what has since become a recurrent theme in my discussions with other lawyers, I began to recognize that a concern or struggle that I had thought was unique to me was in fact broadly shared throughout the profession, and that many if not most of us are not only willing, but quite pleased, to connect with and provide support to colleagues facing similar stresses.
We are not perfect. It is the height of hubris for any of us to assume otherwise. Humility and acceptance that we are flawed human beings are signs of personal strength rather than weakness. It is through accepting (and thus overcoming fear of) our imperfection that we gain the courage to take chances and to risk failure – for only in doing so can we succeed and grow – as lawyers and as human beings.