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Time for lawyers to get comfortable with failure
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Time for lawyers to get comfortable with failure

One of the biggest impediments to trying something new is the fear of failure, writes Stuart J. Barnett.

Failing isn’t generally a very attractive prospect, particularly for lawyers schooled in risk aversion and precedent, rewarded for winning and being super competitive. After all, surely success is squeezing out any possibility of failure.

It makes sense: clients want lawyers to be right, to win and to not make mistakes.

The danger, however, is that being too risk adverse, too unwilling to fail, is that you don’t get the opportunity to explore new things and avoid opportunities to grow and develop. You do things the way you always have.

So, getting comfortable with failure can free you up to explore new opportunities, new learnings, and become a more agile lawyer and have a significant impact on your ultimate success.

Thinking about how you respond to failure

A recent review of the literature on emotional response to failure published in Clinical Psychology Review identified three strong psychological factors that can buffer emotional distress or dysfunction when faced with failure: self-esteem, attributional style and levels of socially prescribed perfectionism.


How we value ourselves can have an impact on how well we react to a failure. If we already have a low self-esteem or are down on ourselves, then failure is going to have a very negative, possibly even overwhelming, effect. Whereas, if we have a more positive view of ourselves, we can better put the failure in perspective, riding the low and seeing it as a learning opportunity.

Attributional style

How we describe failure to ourselves is our attributional style. What we are aiming for is to think about the failure that is specific, temporary and external.

Specific refers to seeing the failure as something very specific to that particular even; for instance, because you failed in trying a new way to attract clients doesn’t make you bad at all business development, or a bad lawyer, or a poor excuse for a human being. It just means that particular attempt didn’t work.

Failure is a temporary thing. Just because you failed doesn’t mean you are always going to fail. You can’t be telling yourself it is a permanent state; the next time it will work better, and you will learn how to improve.

Finally, it’s not all about you. You can’t see the failure simply as your fault, something internal to you. You have to be able to look at external factors, take stock and not be in a rush to place the blame entirely on yourself. What other factors are at play?

Socially prescribed perfectionism

Perfectionists by definition don’t like failure, and some level of perfectionism can be helpful — where you set yourself high standards to achieve something. But it can also be destructive. And if you find yourself thinking that people around you only value you if you are perfect, then this is socially prescribed perfectionism and you are going to find failure disastrous.

Reframing failure

Probably the best way to better deal with failure is to reframe it as something that is an inevitable consequence of trying new things. If you are not failing, you are not trying something new.

You have to be willing to be crap at something to start with, and to be willing to get better at it over time. Making incremental changes daily can result in a big impact in the long run.

So, try something new, even small, plug away at it, comparing your progress only to yourself, and free yourself up to become a better lawyer.

Stuart J. Barnett is an executive coach who specialises in working with lawyers.

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