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Problematic Perfectionism

“Freedom is not worth having if it does not connote freedom to err.”

Posted Apr 22, 2006 4:05 AM CDT
By Gandhi, 1931

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How do you respond to Gandhi’s words? With a deep breath and an “amen,” or with a sense of certainty that although he may have been a great man (and an excellent lawyer to boot), he couldn’t have possibly hacked law practice today?

You might think that over the years we would have made more progress toward curbing the demon of perfectionism. Perhaps we have--in some professions. But in the legal world, this mindset remains prevalent. In fact, it seems only to have become more pervasive.

Colleges and universities across the country offer information to help students cope with a variety of psychological and behavioral difficulties. The University of Texas, for example, is one of numerous schools that publish booklets on the effects of perfectionism. They describe these costs: depression, performance anxiety, social anxiety, writer’s block and extreme compulsiveness. Other sources point to effects such as insomnia, pessimism and sometimes immobilization.

Here, I offer three observers’ takes on perfectionism in law:

Pat McHenry Sullivan is an Oakland, Calif., writer who has, over the years, also worked as a paralegal and a legal secretary. In all, she has worked for hundreds of lawyers, with some only briefly and with others for rather long stretches. In every instance, she made a point to get to know them at least a little bit (it must have been the writer in her). Sullivan refers to what she calls “perfectionist dragons.”

“It’s as if the entire legal world is haunted by two dragons. One breathes fire and warns, ‘Hurry up! There’s always more you can do!’ While the other has an icy, paralyzing breath that whispers snidely, ‘Be careful. Everything you do could be wrong.’ ”

“The best attorneys I know,” she says, “have made peace with the dragons by doing their equivalent of standing humbly in front of each one and admitting, ‘You’re right. There is always something I could do, and anything I could do could be wrong.’ ”

Of course, developing that approach requires a healthy sense of humility and the realization that as close as you may come to the prize, new obstacles will arise. Matters beyond your control will get in the way, impeding your ability to move forward. Acknowledging what you can--and can’t--control is a necessary step in limiting the harmful effects of perfectionism.

Kathy Morris, chief career development officer at Chicago’s Gardner Carton & Douglas, has given quite a bit of thought to the effects of perfectionism.

“The quest to be perfect often stops people from jumping in and trying new things--from volunteering for assignments to trying a new practice area to giving talks at their law schools.”

But, Morris says, things have changed. “In today’s practice, where time is compressed, often clients are not looking for the perfect job.” They are looking for a quality job. So reading every single possible case might not be necessary. And it may not be necessary to do everything to the nth power.

“You’re taught to be right,” Morris says, “and not to say ‘I don’t know.’ But in the real world, it shouldn’t be a quest for perfect, but for what’s possible.”

Morris goes on to say that striving for perfection can be a professional liability. “It holds people back from being creative and innovative, and it just takes an awful lot of time.”

Law is Hard

Benjamin Sells, a former lawyer and psychotherapist in Chicago, is the author of The Soul of the Law. He has a rather different take on the question of perfectionism.

With more distance, he says, he realizes perfectionism is simply part of law practice. “I didn’t realize that there are simply things that go with the territory.”

“I remember being a young associate at Jenner [& Block], and we were working on a project around the clock. At one point, a partner asked me how certain I was about a particular legal point, and I told him 99 percent.

“‘Then you’re not sure,’ the partner said.”

Sells used to lose sleep at night because of a gnawing fear that he’d forgotten something, something that might have been minuscule but could have torpedoed a case just the same. It has to be among the top five lawyer nightmares, but looking back, Sells says, he isn’t particularly sympathetic to those who are expected to be--and expect themselves to be--perfect.

“Is there psychological fallout?” Sells asks. “Sure. But that’s part of it. You can’t say ‘I don’t know’ because it will be perceived as weakness. You’re supposed to get it right, period.”

“I think it’s a legitimate expectation,” Sells says. “A lawyer has a huge responsibility to law.

“And if you think you need a life,” Sells says, “or you think that working in law isn’t a life, then it isn’t for you. You are a lawyer, and lawyering is hard. I really believe that you shouldn’t become a lawyer unless it would be a misery to you if you didn’t.”

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