Perfectionism can almost guarantee burnout, stress, unhappiness, and depression for lawyers.
Meet Lester, A Perfectionist
When I first met Lester I asked him a simple question. “Lester, when is “perfect,” perfect enough.”
Lester sadly shook his head and said, “Never.
When I first met Lester, he talked about his disappointment with himself. But what I heard him describe was an excellent and conscientious lawyer.
I interrupted his conversation and asked, “What would your firm say about you Lester?”
“They would say I am a good lawyer, I need to bring in more business and they would like me to bill more hours. I think they like my work.”
“Then why do you berate yourself, Lester?”
“Because I feel like a disgrace to the legal profession. I don’t know how I don’t catch each mistake. I stay behind on my cases. I allow myself to get too tired and I shouldn’t.”
“How many hours per week do you work Lester?” I asked.
“Between 62–68 hours, not nearly enough.”
Lester clearly had a distorted view of himself and his work that would cause him unhappiness and frustration.
Is Perfection a Handicap?
Psychologists almost always consider perfectionism as a handicap. They say that perfectionists are prone to distress and are haunted by a chronic sense of failure. They face constant indecisiveness and are subject to procrastination and shame.
Law firms, as well as law schools, are breeding grounds for perfectionists. Let’s meet Lester who is a perfect example of perfectionism.
More About Lester the Perfectionist
I continued, “Is it true that you and your wife have a newborn baby girl?”
“It’s no excuse!” He retorted. “I am a lawyer, I am expected to be perfect, and I expect myself to be perfect.”
“Well, I will tell you this, Lester. You want to change your attitude. Let’s see if we can find a way for you to be less anxious. What if you stopped beating yourself up?”
Lester stared at the ceiling as if he couldn’t understand what I was saying.
“Lester, can we talk about how you can get more sleep, and cut down on your alcohol? Unless you get your priorities straight, you will indeed make more mistakes. You are making yourself miserable.”
It Begins in Law School
The clinical view of perfectionism usually involves setting excessive and high personal standards. And lawyers and solicitors are constantly evaluating their behaviors in light of these standards.
Unfortunately, perfectionism begins in law school for many lawyers.
The National Task Force For Lawyer’s Well-Being published the Survey of Law Student Well-Being in which 15 schools and 3,300 students participated. This is what they found:
14% experienced severe anxiety
17% suffered from some level of depression
23% had mild or moderate anxiety
6% experienced serious suicidal thoughts
43% reported episode(s) of binge drinking
Indeed law schools are breeding grounds for perfectionism.
How Lighten Can Regain Enthusiasm in Their Practice
Tip Number 1: Lighten Up
I often say to my clients; you are not performing heart surgery. Keep your perspective. In most instances, it is not a matter of life and death. You can only do your best.
Tip Number 2: Admit You Are Human
Admit that making mistakes and imperfections is human, and YOU ARE HUMAN
Many lawyers, like Lester, believed that it is inexcusable to make a mistake. They try to force an inhuman standard upon others to cover up their imperfections.
Tip Number 3: Stop Focusing on Avoiding Failure
Lawyers are risk adverse, but life is full of risks. There are no guarantees. Doing your best and getting support from others and is all you can do.
Tip Number 4: Set Realistic Goals
Focus on improving each year that you practice, setting realistic goals and objectives. Determine a realistic standard of excellence. Your standard must include your humanity, making mistakes, and learning from them.
Tip Number 5: Remember practicing law is a journey not a destination
Lawyers who are most successful realize that practicing law is a journey and not a destination. They keep in mind the longevity and enjoyment of their careers. Practicing law is a triathlon, not a sprint.
Lawyers, solicitors, learning to relax is necessary. Begin habits like going for a walk, making time to meditate, eating nutritious meals and reducing alcohol intake can increase happiness and reduce stress.
Lester Regains his Perspective
Lester eventually claimed his humanity back. He stopped beating himself up and demanding more and more of himself.
Lester finally let go of his self-imposed pressure and stopped setting realistic goals. Lester learned to pace himself and to enjoy his law practice again. He began to enjoy his family and spend time with his baby.
He began to have a practical, proactive and progressive law practice.
Lester laughed, “Admitting that I am not perfect is a PERFECT beginning for a satisfying law practice.