CBA Record March-April 2020
YLS Special Issue: The Balanced Lawyer
No More Fear, No More Fright: How Attorneys Can Use Their Might When Facing Failure
By Kenneth Matuszewski R esearch shows that attorneys today are risk-averse, lack psychological resilience, and are perfectionists. Jordana Alter Confino, Reining in Per- fectionism , L. PRAC. TODAY (Jan. 14, 2019), https://www.lawpracticetoday.org/ article/reining-in-perfectionism/. Because these traits are embraced as virtues, attor- neys are less likely to pursue opportunities that could result in failure and do not report high levels of satisfaction at work. In order to protect clients, it is important to understand where the fear of failure in the legal profession comes from and how to conquer it. Perfectionism The legal profession rewards perfectionism. So much so, that many attorneys choose to pursue paths that are destined to produce favorable outcomes rather than paths that involve taking more risks. While research- ers have not settled on an exact definition of perfectionism, they have agreed that there are three types of perfectionists: self-oriented, other-oriented, and socially prescribed. Susan Daicoff, Lawyer, Know Thyself: A Review of Empirical Research on Attorney Attributes Bearing on Profession- alism , 46 AM. U. L. REV. 1337, 1419 (1997). Self-oriented perfectionists have an internal desire to be perfect, while other- oriented perfectionists demand perfection from others. Socially prescribed perfection- ists are a combination of the other two types, because they believe that others will only value them if they are perfect. The Fear of Failure in the Legal Profession Perfectionism frequently drives students’ decisions in academic settings. Law school, in particular, “shine[s] a very, very bright light on these tendencies.” Keriann Stout, How Perfectionism Hurts Law Students, ABOVETHE L. (Feb. 26, 2018, 5:01 PM), https://abovethelaw.com/2018/02/how- perfectionism-hurts-law-students/. Despite professors’ best efforts to grade holistically, employers often use law students’ grades as a proxy for ability. Even though grades are not the best predictors of success when practicing law, decisions to offer an initial
Symptoms of perfectionism in all three types include:
Fear of failure
Finding failure to be a lack of personal worth.
Fear of making mistakes
Treating mistakes as failures.
Fear of disapproval
Believing mistakes will cause social isolation. Believing if something does not go perfectly, then it is worthless.
Ultimately, perfectionism is unhealthy because it leads to job dissatisfaction, health issues, and burnout. Excessively acting to ensure nothing goes wrong. Excessive checking and reassurance seeking Constantly seeking comfort from others that standards are being met. Excessive organization and list-making Spending so much time organizing that it interferes with performing a task. Procrastination Putting off tasks out of fear standards will not be met Avoidance Avoiding tasks out of fear standards will not be Overcompensating
Overcoming the Fear of Failure While it is difficult to confront and change rewarded behaviors like perfectionism, attorneys must become comfortable with failure if they want to have a successful career. Two ways to overcome the fear of failure include finding the benefit of past failures and viewing failure as a challenge. Finding the Benefit of Past Failures Failure is often seen as a devastating set- back. However, there is always at least one benefit that results from failure. Unless the experience was overwhelming, the benefits of past failures should be found as soon as possible. One way to find benefits from failure
interview are sometimes based purely on class rank and transcripts. While students may have other qualities that would allow them to succeed, those are ignored in favor of grades. Perfectionism and all-or-nothing thinking are therefore exacerbated. Unfortunately, after graduation, the fear of failure in the legal profession gets worse, due to external beliefs or behaviors, such as social stigma and the belief that asking for help is a weakness. Some also worry that if they lose their job, they will be judged harshly by future employers. Such thinking perpetuates a negative feedback cycle of anxiety, shame, and stress in the workplace whenever a mistake is made. This, in turn, will stifle attorneys’ growth and result in a self-fulfilling prophecy.
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