The practice of law can be chaos. We juggle too many files. We have to respond to surprise moves by opposing counsel. And since the law is always changing, we’re often doing things for the first time. It’s inevitable that mistakes will creep into our work.
Yet as a profession, we never talk about this fact. This, in turn, creates the illusion that we are all perfect.
This needs to change. It’s so important to speak honestly about failure. A 2016 study found that when high-school students learned that famous scientists — such as Albert Einstein and Marie Curie — suffered professional setbacks, their grades were more likely to improve. Such stories helped students “interpret their difficulties in science classes as normal occurrences rather than a reflection of their lack of intelligence.”Allow me to break the ice. I was once working on a closing and the clients were coming to sign the final papers at our offices. In the rush to finalize, a few pages of the deal were missing signatures — a mistake I noticed only after the clients had left. My immediate thought: I will never work on a closing again. I’m a negligent lawyer.
But in the end, it was a simple fix. I called them back, they signed the pages and my career went on. Since then, I’ve started to accept that I will never be perfect. I have found the following steps to be helpful in those moments of panic, when I realize that things haven’t gone as planned.
Be honest about what happened. When something goes wrong, it’s terrifying. But it will only get worse if you don’t admit your mistake and deal with it right away. To suffer on your own, in secret, can cloud your judgment. Remember that the earlier you address the problem, the easier it will be to find a solution.
Take a break. After dealing with a stressful situation, remember that it’s okay to disengage and find validation outside of work. I find it helpful to engage in activities I enjoy, like preparing a good meal, finishing a book or indulging in my guiltiest pleasure (poring over mom blogs and the forums that analyze their personas).
Stay off social media. Though social media can be informative (and entertaining), it can trick you into thinking that your friends’ best moments are their everyday moments. I do this all the time. I’ll think, This lawyer always looks great and professional and seems to eat the best meals and go on the best vacations. In moments of vulnerability, it’s easy to slip further down the comparison spiral and think, I bet this person never makes mistakes. In reality, this is almost certainly not true. But the easiest way to keep your mind clear is to get off Instagram.
Lean on your support network. When I experience that sinking feeling in my gut after something goes wrong, I benefit tremendously from my friends and mentors. They are there to remind me that the feeling will go away and that I shouldn’t rest my self-esteem on that one file.
Reflect on what happened. After the panic settles, take time to really think about why the error took place. Were too many things happening at the time? Could you have planned better? Moving on should include a genuine reflection on why things unfolded the way they did, so the same sequence of events can be avoided in the future.
And if you’re wondering, yes: I always triple-check every page for signatures during a closing. But I also know that, if I miss one, that doesn’t mean I’m the worst lawyer.
Rosel Kim is an associate at Goodmans LLP. She is a career and lifestyle writer for Precedent and PrecedentJD. Follow her on Twitter at @jroselkim.
This story is from our Fall 2018 Issue.
Illustration by Sandi Falconer