Early in law school, I remember getting an exam back with, let’s say, a less-than-desirable grade. I was mortified. Throughout my undergrad, I’d never earned such a mark. In that moment, I wondered if law school was really the place for me. Because of the tiniest blip on my academic record, I started to question my identity as a whole. This, more than the grade (which I brought up to an A by the end of the course), was the problem.
My experience is typical. Lawyers are creatures of perfectionism. Our profession demands exactitude and attention to detail, qualities that benefit our clients and fuel our work ethic. But we often hold ourselves to absurd standards. The smallest mistakes can give rise to feelings of shame and failure that are wildly out of proportion to reality. In normal times, this tendency puts our mental health at risk.
Today, nothing is normal. We are, of course, still in the midst of a pandemic. Uncertainty about the future persists. So, too, does our social isolation. And existential dread continues to creep into our minds — at least once a week, for me — about the state of the world.
The pandemic has also crushed the legal economy. In April, some of Toronto’s largest law firms started to announce layoffs and salary cuts. Beyond the world of Big Law, there are doubtless hundreds of examples of lawyers being let go at small to mid-sized firms, of further salary cuts and of drops in business and billable hours. As perfectionists, we are ill equipped to handle this sudden shock. Those who are affected will, inevitably, struggle with deep feelings of inferiority.
If you have recently experienced a career setback, there is no simple cure that will make everything better. But the first step is to pause. Although you might feel like a terrible lawyer who is destined for a life of failure, this is not the case. The pandemic is not your fault, nor can you control its consequences. And you shouldn’t lose sight of that fact.
You should, on the other hand, reach out to your network. Not necessarily to ask for a job, but to make meaningful connections. The wisdom of senior practitioners can be particularly helpful. Most lawyers who have been practising for a while have, at some point, encountered a professional roadblock. Maybe they weren’t hired back after articling. Maybe they worked at a firm that went under. At the very least, they will remember how the profession recovered in the wake of previous economic downturns. Seek out these conversations. The more open you are with your friends and colleagues, the more you will find that feelings of embarrassment and failure — which are unhelpful to begin with — start to disappear from your mind.
Though my own job has been stable, uncertainty about the future has certainly led to an increase in anxiety. Having a healthy diversion has been critical. Every day, my partner and I go for a walk after our workdays and come home to cook. We use these opportunities to relax and take our minds off of our daily stressors and the pandemic at large. Look for your own ways to decompress — such as taking a social-media break and exercising — so that you can ease the burden of this difficult time.
Finally, if you are plagued by stubborn feelings of self-doubt, speak to a mental health professional. This is a great way to get a direct, unbiased view of your situation, and the cost is often covered under the Law Society of Ontario’s member-assistance program. Learning how to set aside our perfectionism is critical to getting through difficult periods, both now and throughout the rest of our lives.
Cameron Bryant is a lawyer and lease negotiator with Cirrus Consulting Group in Toronto. He writes about fashion and lifestyle for Precedent.
This is a story from our Fall 2020 Issue.
Illustration by Jeannie Phan