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Combatting Perfectionism in the Legal Profession: Don't Let Perfect Be the Enemy of Good

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Combatting Perfectionism in the Legal Profession: Don't Let Perfect Be the Enemy of Good

Perfectionism in the legal sector has always been a problem due to the crushing time pressures, demanding clients, and rampant poor self-care and substance use disorders plaguing practitioners and legal professionals. This "culture of perfectionism" has encouraged maladaptive coping techniques and led younger lawyers to conceal mistakes, oftentimes to the detriment of both firm and client. This program will explain the phenomenon of perfectionism and provide readily applicable tools to manage its negative impact. It will define perfectionism, the wonder of "adaptive" perfectionism and the dangers of maladaptive perfectionism. This course will also provide strategies for taming your inner perfectionist and explore simple, yet life-changing tools to manage perfectionistic tendencies.

Transcript

Everyone, welcome to the program Combatting Perfectionism in the Legal Profession: Don't Let Perfect Be the Enemy of Good. My name is Tracy Kepler, and I'll be with you for the next hour discussing this topic. If you have questions that cannot be answered or that don't answer during the program, please feel free to reach out to me. And my contact information is on this slide. So before I begin, I think a little bit of a disclaimer or explanation is in order. As you have seen, my title is director of Risk Control Consulting for CNAs Insurance Lawyers Professional Liability Section. It's a really long title for saying I proactively work with underwriting and claims to keep our insured lawyers out of legal malpractice trouble. And you may be asking with with that job, why should I listen to what she's saying and how is she even qualified to speak to this issue and think you have to take a step back to understand way back when sort of to the summer of 2020. At that point, I was a new staff counsel at the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission. That's the agency that's charged with investigating and prosecuting attorneys for ethical transgressions in Illinois. One week a month, we had ethics duty, meaning lawyers could call and ask questions and we would provide guidance on the rules of professional conduct. Lawyers could also come in in person to the office, and we would meet with them as a new lawyer. I was really excited. I wore my best suit. I hoped that somebody would come into the office so we could discuss conflicts of interest or how to work with the client trust accounts. And one Tuesday morning, the receptionist called to say there was a man in the lobby waiting to talk to me. I went out, we went into a conference room. We sat down and the attorney said, I smoke pot every day to help me cope with the debilitating backslide I feel when the Ritalin I take for my ADHD wears off. Well, in that moment, I paused and thought about three things. The first thing I thought is, Is this guy high right now? Does he know where he is and does he know what the D in the R stands for? The second thing I thought was, you know, am I being punked? Is this some sort of candid camera thing by the administrator of the RTC? Is this the new, you know, trial for new attorneys? And then the third time I just said, oh, sort of the sadness that this attorney had nowhere to turn but the disciplinary office. He didn't have any other options. He didn't know about a lawyers assistance program. He didn't have any colleagues, friends, family to turn to for help. And over the next few months of working with this attorney, I came to find out that he also suffered from bipolar disorder. His wife and five kids had left him. He lost his house. He alienated his friends, colleagues, opposing counsel, clients. He was facing bankruptcy. His car had been repossessed. And he was having other, you know, rule violations, problems with his clients. And over the next few years at the RTC, heard more stories similar in nature attorneys coming to sworn statements and depositions under the influence. Attorneys telling me that they had stacks and stacks of letters piled up. Even their annual registration letters and they couldn't open them because of the stress and anxiety it produced. Attorneys who started in the profession, you know, just wanting to help people. And now they were profoundly ambivalent about the profession and their career. Attorneys who were so afraid of making a mistake that they were paralyzed by fear. They couldn't even start a project or procrastinated to the point that they missed a deadline not sleeping because they couldn't clear their minds. And they kept replaying that opening closing direct exam. What they could have done differently, what they could have done better. Some would even tell me I just really don't even want to do this job anymore. Or worst of all, attorneys who didn't show up. Not because they were facing disbarment for conversion of millions of dollars, but simple neglect matters. And all of this caused me to think, why? What is it about us? What is it about the legal profession, about the work that's causing these problems? And what can I do about it? And that's where the Illinois Lawyers Assistance Program came in. It saved me. Not so not in a recovery sense, but in a mission and a quest sense. It gave me a passion. It filled my soul. It put me on a track to learn the whys and to be able to do something about it. To find out more about the health and well-being of the legal profession from the time we first apply to law school through the semesters, the bar exam, our first job, and all the way to the other end. Succession planning and encore Careers. How are we individually and in our institute bones making perfect the enemy of good and coping with maladaptive perfectionism? Instead, I became a lab volunteer. I got involved with this mission. I spread the word, engaged, reached out, collaborated, and wanted to make sure that everyone knows there's a confidential and safe place to turn, that you're not alone. And knew there was more. I thought, How could I be a part of this movement of change towards improving the health and well-being of the legal profession? How do we change the culture, reduce the stigma and get on a better, healthier path? While not a director of a lawyers assistance program? Myself, over the past 20 years as bar counsel, both at the state and federal level, as well as director of the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility. And in my current role, I have a great deal of interaction with law students, judges and attorneys. In addition, through some of my passion projects will say or side hustles. I've been involved with attorneys as an adjunct professor and in various committees. Abraham Lincoln said that the best way to predict the future is to create it. That's what we're doing through these types of educational outsource or outreach and and trainings. We can change the culture. We can build a more relevant and resilient future and framework for our profession. Mental health issues and this perfectionism, as well as maladaptive perfectionism that we're going to be discussing, can affect any attorney in any setting at any time without the coping skills. It can even destroy careers and lives. And while no one of us can do everything, all of us can do one thing or something. We also know that from a humanitarian perspective, promoting well-being is the right thing to do. It affects too many of our colleagues and we can all contribute to to education and reducing the stigma and improving the collective legal culture. Whether this culture is toxic or sustaining is going to be up to us, and our interdependence creates a joint responsibility for solutions. We've all heard the expression, see it, say it and think. The same goes for talking with our colleagues about what we see, particularly in this perfectionism minefield. Let's jump in and see what we can do about perfectionism during the next hour. I'm hoping that you will, you know, learn about the phenomenon, phenomenon of perfectionism and understand the positive benefits of adaptive perfectionism and then also some of the dangers of this maladaptive perfectionism. We're going to talk about some strategies on coping and taming your inner perfectionist and provide a lot of takeaways and best practices once you leave this this program to put into place into your own practice. And we're also going to talk about the ways in which the fear of making mistakes can impact not only client matters, firm liability and your professional license. How we're going to get there. This is the roadmap. We're first going to consider what perfectionism is. Then we'll move to why it's so problematic and finally discuss what we can do about it individually and in a firm setting. So what is perfectionism and how does it actually present in the legal profession? In working with law students and lawyers, I'm often confronted with the high internal as well as external expectations that legal professionals face, as well as set for themselves and their professional and personal lives. I'm sure each of you has said or has heard someone else say the statements on the screen, I'm not good enough. I worry about what others think of me. I never feel proud of my accomplishments. I'm feeling like I always have to prove myself. I have a hard time delegating tasks to others and it just feel like a fraud or a failure. When someone says something like this to me, I often follow up and ask what they consider an achievement or an accomplishment. In the response. Many often fail. You know, to say, I graduated college, took the LSAT, I got accepted to law school. I graduated from law school. I passed the bar. I got a job. I'm making a good living in the law. I have a stable personal partnership, you know. And they forget to say all of these things as evidence of achieved success. Why is that? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, perfectionism is defined as a refusal to accept any standard short of perfection in the field of psychology. Perfectionism is viewed as a personality trait characterized for striving for flawlessness, setting unduly high performance standards and being overly critical of one's behavior. Really sort of a multidimensional concept that has several different components. Canadian psychologists Gordon Flett and Paul Hewitt actually identify three types of perfectionism. The first is self-oriented perfectionism. And that's the tendency to have unrealistically high standards for yourself that are impossible to attain. Other oriented perfectionism is the tendency to demand others meet your unrealistic, unrealistically high standards. And then the third socially prescribed is the tendency to assume others have expectations of you that are impossible to meet. These concepts of internal and external expectation for self and others lead to high levels of self-criticism, depressive tendencies, a lack of acceptance of our mistake and failures, high levels of anger, problematic relationships, burnout, low resiliency and social anxiety. They also create a host of problems that lead people to feel low levels of satisfaction and happiness, as well as a continual striving toward goal achievement as a personal barometer for success. In addition, as I said, you know, high levels of perfectionism can lead to exhaustion, fatigue, performance issues, clinical depression, burnout and anxiety. I think a lot of us often regard perfectionism as a desirable trait to have. I think some of us may even go so far as proudly or, you know, mentioning it as one of our strengths during a job interview. The short answer is that perfectionism is a trait whereby an individual always strives to achieve the best and may often feel upset when that desired standard is not achieved. More often than not, the perfectionist keeps on raising the bar because a good result is never good enough. Like many other things in life, there's another less rosy side to perfectionism. Many times this, I'll call it uglier cousin results in that combination of anxiety and low self-esteem. And evidence suggests that instead of helping us grow the anxious kind of perfectionism or maladaptive perfectionism may actually limit our ability to reach our potential at work. So how does it present in the legal profession and how does it progress or morph through the different stages of one's career? Perfectionism is that anchor, that albatross, right? That drags us down and keeps us from reaching our true potential. Sometimes the quest for protection, for perfectionism can be an exercise in futility. Think it really is a matter of opinion? Aspiring to be perfect means we are prioritizing the perceptions of others over the perception of self. Rather than aiming to be the best version of ourselves, our own best, we're instead focusing on making someone else believe that we are the best. Many law students, you know, as perpetual high achievers, have perfectionist tendencies that existed long before law school. And however, the hyper competitiveness of the law school environment and law students propensities to compare themselves to their peers make students particularly susceptible to intensified perfectionist tendencies. And these tendencies really do have significant negative consequences that can affect academic performance. Lower productivity is one of those, you know, students who have difficulty transitioning from one tasks, one task to the next until it's perfect will likely remain stalled. You know, the perfect course outline. It occupies so many, so much time, um, that they miss other things. They don't get a chance to study for other exams. Procrastination, perfectionism and procrastination go hand in hand. Reduced competencies. Perfectionism is a confidence killer. We are imperfect beings who make mistakes. Let's face it, mistakes are going to happen, but also so will growth. For law students making a mistake or receiving feedback that they need to further develop a skill can crush their self-esteem and confidence. It may keep them from trying new things or speaking up in class for fear that they won't be perfect. I think sometimes students also base their self-worth on their academic achievements and see instances of perceived failure not as opportunities for growth, but instead, you know, that evidence that they're a failure. The, you know, lethargy and anxiety. The quest for perfection is exhausting. This vicious cycle of setting impossibly high standards, trying to meet them, feeling overwhelmed and procrastinating, then not meeting them, then trying to manage the anxiety of that just keeps going. And it's mentally, emotionally and physically draining. Similarly, you know, as students move from into that first job after law school, they face the same kinds of perfectionism tendencies. Um, you know, it's the actual practice sometimes that really turns the screws tighter. The perfectionism pressure is enormous, and mistakes, no matter how minor, you know, can be viewed internally as permanent blots or character flaws. And here's the thing. Far too much of this perfection that partners or supervisors may demand and that the lawyers demand of themselves is not about trying to obtain an objective standard of excellence. Instead, what we find is it's trying to conform to a few people's ideas of how things must be. Lawyers are as as a group, are incredibly good at discerning and following precedent. Right. That's what we're trained to do. We're good at aping the past. It's one of the things that law students learn in law school and it gets used in practice, but think that this rigid mimicry is really an illusion, and it feeds the idea that there's this only one way of doing things. Junior associates are also often afraid to ask questions. Share that maybe hey, don't know something, and I'm not secure enough to feel vulnerable and ask a question. They make mistakes, and rather than admitting or telling someone, they conceal. One recent study in Australia of 1700 junior lawyers reflected that nearly 70% agreed that they must give 100% on everything. A third of them said that they always put off work until they feel they can get it just right. And another third expressed dissatisfaction, agreeing that things they accomplish are never quite good enough. No other ways that this comes out in younger lawyers is this overriding need to impress the supervisors needing to impress colleagues and putting pressure on oneself to get everything right all the time? One junior associate said she didn't even realize that she suffered from anxiety until she was working and couldn't breathe. She thought it was normal that she was stressed and Chelsea went to a doctor and they said, This is not normal to always feel so worried about the next thing. Was something she kept hidden. And I think it's a common trait among perfectionists. Perfectionists who are highly skilled at masking their true feelings. And oftentimes it's linked to cultural issues in the legal profession. You know, there's a culture that exists among lawyers that I have to be the smartest person in the room or I need to be the best at everything. And lastly, you know, as we become more seasoned practitioners, this perfectionism oftentimes morphs into workaholism. That's the, you know, working excessive hours. Beyond workplace or financial requirements, by thinking continually, continuously about work and by a lack of work enjoyment which are really unrelated to actual workplace demands, more seasoned practitioners have problems delegating tasks because they think only I can do it the right way, the perfect way. Or they nitpick at other's words, you know, word choices. Is that a semicolon or a colon? They're quick to anger, depression, anxiety and also evidence, similar risk aversion and concealment. But from a fear of mistakes of, you know, I should really know better. As I mentioned earlier, there are two main types of perfectionism, adaptive and maladaptive. And the key difference between them relates to how realistic and achievable the high standards established by the perfectionist are. Mean adaptive perfectionism can be good, right? It means that people are able to accept small failures, set realistic goals, manage the stresses surrounding achievement, can use positive reinforcement to motivate themselves. And in this context, it can be a helpful and empowering trait with high levels of self-esteem and well-being. Maladaptive. Perfection, on the other hand, is characterized by high levels of self-criticism, be terrified of criticism, constantly perceiving underachievement and being paralyzed by the fear of making mistake. This type of perfectionism is accompanied by feelings of shame, guilt and sometimes mental ill health. Maladaptive perfectionism actually does fall into two categories behaviors that help a person meet his her or their own unreasonably high standards and those behaviors that involve avoidance of situations. How does it present? Well, time management and prioritization. Because perfectionists usually have an accurately detailed plan of how to carry out a task, they tend to either delay starting because they don't think they have the right amount of time to do it according to the results. Or they never actually finish a task because they're never happy enough with the outcome that they've achieved or they get lost in all the details. Missing the big picture. Perfectionists also believe that they're defined by their own mistakes and sometimes tend to catastrophize mistakes. They have rigid expectations of their colleagues on correcting or micromanaging others. They set high standards for themselves and then project that onto other people as well. You know, anything less tends to be regarded as a form of lesser commitment to the team's success. Um, you know, really leading to poor relationships. They avoid challenges. They have decision paralysis. You know, whether to choose that next cybersecurity or cloud computing software or what law student candidate to recruit. The perfectionist wants to evalu evaluate each and every possible iteration to a solution before committing to one with the probability that no option is the best one. They tend to procrastinate to a level where no decision is taken. I mentioned this earlier, but rumination repeating behaviors in anxiety. Perfectionists often tend to ruminate over a mistake or a perception that they may be giving off considerably more than they ought to. For self esteem, whether it's a missed deadline or challenge that seemed too daunting to face. Self esteem tends to be one of the first victims of these perfectionist tendencies. So when we talk about perfect being the enemy of good, are we just saying or aren't we just saying that lawyers have to accept mediocrity? And I'm not sure that that's quite true either. We certainly try hard to maintain standards, but if we accept our imperfections, it's not mediocrity. It's human. There's a real fear around that. No one is saying we don't want people striving to do things extraordinarily well. But when it impacts your work, your relationships and your health, it's not healthy. Maladaptive perfectionism isn't just affecting our work, but our leisure. You know, lawyers are famously high achieving, not just in the course of the workplace, but in their other pursuits. I mean, how many do you know that run marathons, write books, run side businesses, play music at virtuostic levels, or show artworks in exhibitions. You know, we're all trying to maintain perfectionism even in our personal lives. And I think one of the, uh, uh, there was a New York Times article in 2018 where the author argued the pursuit of excellence has even infiltrated and corrupted the world of leisure. So how does pessimism fit into the perfectionist equation? Well, I defined it as always. Winter, never Christmas. You can't see the positives. You only see the negatives. Pessimism is actually seen as a plus among lawyers, because seeing the troubles as pervasive and permanent is a component of what the law profession deems prudence. Right. A prudent perspective enables a good lawyer to see every conceivable risk, snare catastrophe that might occur in any transaction, and the ability to anticipate this whole range of problems that our clients may be blind to is what we're trained for. It's what we were hired to do. And if you don't have this prudence to begin with. Law school is going to seek to teach it to you. Unfortunately, though, this trait that makes you a great lawyer can make you a terrible human being. It's not good for our personal lives. Research shows that lawyers are not only generally more pessimistic than the general population, but that law school and law practice actually encourages and rewards pessimism as an attribute. Pessimist just do better at law. Martin Siegelman, a professor of psychology. Psychology professor, I should say, at the University of Pennsylvania, said that attorneys comfort with catastrophizing can frequently carry over into their personal lives with negative ramifications. The results include experiencing high rates of depression, burnout, problematic use of alcohol as well as divorce. And Siegelman actually suggests that attorneys need to move from their natural tendency for pessimism to developing greater optimism. He defined this optimism as the belief that one can make a positive difference in the world now and well into the future. He said Optimism is what causes perseverance. When you are optimistic, you keep going in the face of obstacles. He also said that optimism is very important to possess in the legal industry because it is directly related to combating and fighting depression. So what about this zero sum game? The measure of how we practice law and the way we reward attorneys, does that have an impact on perfectionism? And for most lawyers, the quality of their work is not necessarily reflected in the outcomes achieved. You can do an amazing, you know, an amazing job on a matter and fail. Yet frequently, the measure of a lawyer's success is cast in terms of these very outcomes that are completely beyond our control. Lawyers in private practice are largely compensated for how much they work rather than how good their work is. And sometimes financial rewards are really unconnected to what many lawyers truly desire. Right. To perform challenging and meaningful work to help clients solve their problems and to be considered good counsel. One of the consequences of a profession that does not reward what lawyers truly value is that those who are actually experiencing self-doubt have fewer positives to offset those overcritical inner voices. Research has shown that organisations that who engage in intrinsic motivation of their employees tend to be more successful than those that do not. And perfectionism and self-doubt may drive many lawyers to crave affirmation in order to combat those unfounded feelings of inadequacy. Lawrence Krieger and Sheldon. Kenny Cannon. I'm sorry. Cannon Sheldon study. Um, you know, cited in the lawyer. The addict asserts that the potential for dissatisfaction with the rewards that law provides for many actually begins in law school. Right? The psychological factors that are seen to erode during law school are the very factors that we need the most for the well being when we get out of law school. The factors that are most engaged in law school grades, honors potential career income, have nothing or maybe modest bearing on a lawyer's well-being. To take this one step further. Some other components, right? It's a it's an adversarial possession, an adversarial profession. The other side is always seeking to better the, you know, the position at your client's expense. You can't make any any mistakes. You can't show any weakness. And also what law rewards. As I mentioned, the quality of the work is not necessarily reflected in the outcomes achieved. The financial rewards aren't connected to meaningful work. The consequences of not making this happen, this this self doubt fewer positives to offset your critical inner voice. Law actually selects for pessimistic perfectionists. It rewards those who can identify the worst case scenarios and guard against them. Law school is not just a place where students values begin to change, but it also selects for traits that make them more susceptible to mental health and problematic substance use issues. Self-doubt is another one. Toxic self-doubt compounds these existing barriers to entry in or advancement in the legal profession, and the stigma, shame and vulnerability usually keeps this self-doubt deeply hidden. So now that we know what it is, why is it problematic? Does this hamster wheel really exist? And what does the perpetual state of chasing look like? You know, for some perfectionists, it's not the fear of mistakes, but the fear of success that is actually overwhelming. You know, what do I mean by that? So you give a fabulous oral argument that is successful in persuading the panel when you receive the decision in your favour and for one split second, you savour and relish in this joy of success. And that next instant, all you can think about is what is next. What about that next brief? What about that next oral argument? It needs to be better or at least as good. Have to keep up the same level. The fear of success is the concern that once we achieve something new, we'll be incapable of sustaining it or may suffer because of it. Most of the time we're not consciously even aware of this fear. And that's because when we focus on a goal, we talk up, you know, the positive outcomes of achieving the goal. Rarely do we share with others what might happen when we get to that next level. It's got to recognize that this all or nothing mindset is really harming you. More often than not. Perfectionists define success as a task that has been performed immaculately without any hiccups along the way, and any mishap is a blemish on the overall result. They focus more on what failed along the way. It would be helpful, you know, for us to put things into perspective and recognize that success is not about a perfect end result. It is about trying adjusting growth until the desired outcome is is achieved. Fearing the consequences of success can manifest in really some subtle and also obvious ways. You know, low goals. You set the bar so low to keep yourself from being challenged. Procrastination, you know, you stall just long enough to let the opportunity pass. Quit Right. When you're on the verge of success, you just find a reason to get out. And self-destructiveness. Any of these behaviors can really help you from realizing your full potential. And fear of success can also manifest in a lot of symptoms. Anxiety, Right? The person that anticipates the future consequence of their success, they worry about being in the spotlight. They may be afraid that success may make things too complicated. Complicated. They're worried about how critics are talking about their work and maybe even experiencing some sense of guilt. Discomfort is another one. People may feel uncomfortable pushing themselves towards growth that or towards goals that may require some growth, something outside of their comfort zone. The pressure, right. The person may feel the pressure to have the next project in line on that next hamster wheel. What's the next best thing? Lack of motivation. Sometimes people who are afraid of success may lack motivation or have low expectations, and their fear actually prevents them from progressing or making any progress to their goals. I mean, think about the lawyer who can't stop editing their brief or worries constantly about the response and the judge and opposing counsel, the lawyer who plays it safe, not pushing the state of the rule policy or procedure, even with a good faith basis for doing so. I'm the lawyer who's afraid of growing their business because they doubt whether or not they can support the new hires they bring on. And then there's always imposter syndrome syndrome. People who appear confident yet have their doubts. Can I live up to the expectations? I really don't deserve this. People are going to think or find out that I'm a fraud. And as for chasing success, the philosopher Alan Watts said that life is like a song, and the whole purpose of the song is to dance. He said that when we listen to a song, we don't dance with the goal of getting to the end of the music. We dance to enjoy it. And this isn't always how we live our lives. Instead, we rush through our moments thinking there's always something better. There's always some goal we need to achieve. So how does the fear of making mistakes impact the perfectionist equation, and how does psychological safety play a role in the legal workplace? I think there's no better way to explain this idea than the case of the case of Claire Matthews in the UK. Who is Claire Matthews? She was a woman who qualified to become a solicitor in 2017 and had been at a law firm in Birmingham, England, for less than a month when the incident happened. What was the incident? Well, she mislaid a locked briefcase containing confidential information when she fell asleep on the train ride home. The briefcase actually belonged to her colleague. And Miss Matthews initially stalled for a time in the hope that the briefcase would be found and returned. But unfortunately, it wasn't. So a week later, Miss Matthews told her colleague that the briefcase was in her flat and that she would return it. One week. After that, however, she actually confessed the full truth about how and when the briefcase came to be lost. So what ended up happening? The Solicitors Regulator Authority filed charges. She represented herself. She said, You know what? I was overcome by uncontrollable fear, anxiety and panic. I was frozen with dread by what had occurred and she disclosed she had been suicidal at the time. In the end, and as you can see on the screen before you, the SRA acknowledged that a mental state was relevant, but they still disciplined her. Right. And they still ordered her to pay costs. She was struck off, meaning in, you know, in the US that would be like being disbarred. The Junior Lawyers Division actually wrote a letter to the Solicitors Regulatory Authority expressing concerns that this authority was not adequately protecting junior lawyers and pointing it out, that it you know, it may have well been the case that Matthews may not have been, you know, in a position, um, to to help herself. There was a whole bunch of media attention, media attention about this case. Several high profile legal ethics experts offered their pro bono assistance. There was a go fund me case. There was an appeal. There was medical evidence presented. And in 2021, the Solicitors Regulatory Authority agreed to compromise and agreed for the matter to be reheard. Um, you know, in the end, what I should say is, you know, they withdrew the allegations. They reinstated Matthews. She was free to continue to practice, but there were certain conditions on her practising certificates. I think it's hardly an understatement to say that legal culture doesn't encourage the early recognition and acceptance of mistakes, which is the common response to an error, particularly junior associates. And, you know, it's it's it's coupled with fear and panic. Um, in theory, of course. Right. We all make mistakes. We're human beings. Um, and even experienced lawyers make mistakes. But think in practice, when faced with having made a mistake, these truths go totally out the window. Um. Particularly in this case, you know, MATTHEWS Being a junior attorney, it's such a vulnerable time in anybody's legal career making that transition into practice. And I think there's a real fear that mistakes are going to be seen as incompetence or that asking for help is going to be seen as a weakness. Um, after you've been berated by your manager for a spelling mistake or a poorly drafted letter, where you see others being, you know, in quotes punished or shunned for mistakes or failures, you're not going to find it very easy to admit that you missed the deadline or you need to seek clarification on a task. Um, evidence shows that making poor ethical decisions is more likely when we perceive a loss to ourselves rather than a gain. Making a mistake doesn't make you a bad lawyer. I think the problem is, is that we don't do a great job in legal education, training and practice of preparing lawyers for how to respond in making mistakes. And we don't have a culture in law where mistakes are seen as an opportunity, an opportunity to learn or develop strategies to prevent them from happening again. And I think we don't talk very freely about the mistakes that we've made. Um, the dominant culture in law actually leads to what we're seeing. Hide it, don't tell anybody. And we need to develop some psychological safety in the legal profession. If we want people to see if we want to see people behave differently, then we need to start looking at how we can change the workplace environments to be more supportive of healthy responses to mistakes, to create a culture that really does value sharing insights and learning where their support for those who've made mistakes and where mistakes are handled without blame. Um, you know, to create a culture that actually values well-being to mitigate the risk of stress and fatigue that can that can lead to these mistakes. To see senior lawyers leading by example and maybe even talking about mistakes or past mistakes they have they have made. So how can we do something about this? Well, we need to start shifting those shared everyday habits in law. You know, sort of the perception that this is how things are done around here. We need to talk and we need to move from talking to doing to articulating this positive vision, this positive culture. No one should feel that if they leave confidential papers on a train or miss a deadline, the better option is to cover it up rather than to own it and to do something about it. Like, you know, likewise we should be or we should learn how to talk to clients about these mistakes. It's not the mistakes that are the problem. It's how they're being handled. So briefly, a little bit about how we see these perfectionist tendencies come into the scope of the model rules of professional conduct and disciplinary violations? Well, we certainly see it in competence. We see it in diligence where we have to act with reasonable diligence and promptness. And in fact, comment three to that rule speaks specifically about this idea of procrastination. And it says perhaps no professional shortcoming is more widely resented than procrastination. A client's interests can often be adversely affected by the passage of time or the change of conditions. And then one point for communication. We have a duty to talk to our clients to promptly inform about certain things that are happening in the matter, to consult with clients to explain the risks, benefits and what's happening in their cases. And how do these rules, perfectionism, fear of making mistakes intersect when we actually make an error? Well, we've all heard that it's not the act but the cover up that causes trouble. And I think it applies to attorneys as well. This desire to conceal is understandable. We're embarrassed to admit that we made a mistake, but we have ethical and professional obligations to disclose them. A mistake may damage your case, and it might also threaten your relationship with a client or maybe even your position with the firm. But failing to disclose it or to respond appropriately could jeopardize your license and your career. We have a duty under the rules. Again, under rule 1.4 and 1.78 to the conflicts rules to talk about these issues, to explain it to the clients. And you know it sometimes at first glance it appears the interest and the the the interest of the attorney and client are aligned. But in practice, it's seldom the case. You know, the attorney now fixated on avoiding liability, may be tempted to highlight legal or factual theories that remain unaffected by the error or maybe recommend settlement to prevent the errors, exposure, or even steer the client towards litigation to get over a previously bungled settlement. You know, after, you know, you've made this error, you've decided you made the error. There are certain ways that you should go about handling it. How you're going to tell the client. Right. You need to talk about this is what happened and this is what it means to you. Um, you're going to you're going to talk about the factual circumstances of the error, what it means if there's a way to correct it. Um, you know, the client, You know, if you don't if you don't want to go any forward with this, you can terminate the representation. And also you are welcome. And it may be as the quote on the screen before you, it may be in your best interest to consult with an independent lawyer on the potential impact to your rights or claims. For, you know, for even in a more seasoned practitioner. This is not an easy discussion, right? It is difficult for the for all of us and for the perfectionist. It can be paralyzing. Um. Typically it should be done face to face so that that client can ask questions. And also, it's a great way to, um, you know, determine candor. It's a great way to convey a sense of accountability. Um, also adopting a conciliatory tone, owning up to your mistake and even apologizing may go further than you think in avoiding a malpractice claim. I will note, you know, an apology on its own doesn't work against you in a malpractice case. And it actually might be viewed favorably should you find yourself in a disciplinary hearing. The key here is not admitting the liability. There's a critical line between admitting an error. You know, you made an error which your ethical duty requires, and admitting liability which exceeds any ethical duty and jeopardizes legal malpractice coverage, saying I made an error and here's what I did is great. I made an error and I believe I was negligent or I believe you have a claim is a problem. Remembering that, you know, this hype, this desire to hide, this desire to conceal, can have other problems. And there are grave consequences of non-disclosure or this concept of fraudulent concealment. Um, you know, it can lead to additional financial negative financial outcomes. It can lead to professional discipline. And, you know, while making a mistake is rarely grounds for discipline in and of itself. Um, attorneys have been reprimanded, suspended or even disbarred for telling half truths with respect to their own errors. Some last model rules that are implicated by this this desire to cover up or errors, you know, 5.1 supervision of others and your responsibilities to staff. 5253. Thinking about this culture that we need to create where there's psychological safety in admitting these types of errors. So is there a causal connection between perfectionism and burnout, imposter syndrome, depression, anxiety and think, as we have seen, the short answer is yes. Great case study. Very sad case study. But as you can see on the screen in front of you, it's the article that was called Big Law Killed My Husband. It was where a 42 year old partner died by suicide. Um, you know, his mentor had left the firm. He was thrown into a leadership role, didn't have any support. Asked to share, Summer Associates was on a huge bankruptcy case, and his wife said I'd never seen him so stressed out and anxious. He wasn't trying to burden me with what was going on, but he wasn't sleeping. I hadn't seen him smile in weeks, and most everything he said was negative. She said he was working himself to exhaustion. He told me his body was failing him. I picked him up and we decided we should go to the emergency room. And he actually said to me on the way there, you know, if we go, this is the end of my career. Some other things that she said in this article, that it was only, you know, try in her quest to figure out what happened, that she came across this concept of maladaptive perfectionism. Um, you know, she, she she had talked to her husband in the past. You know, we got to talk about you should just try to care less about the work. But she knew the type of person that he was, and that was never going to happen. Um, he felt like a phony, this imposter syndrome who had fooled everybody about his abilities as a lawyer. And he even thought, you know, even if after this case is over, I'm going to be fired. She said that there was this constant striving to be perfect at work to be the and not only at work in her personal life, perfect husband, son, uncle, brother. And there was a shame. I'm not performing to these impossibly high standards. And all of this together created the perfect storm. In the time that we have left, I want to talk about what we can do about it. What are some coping mechanisms and how can we face this perfectionism or the maladaptive perfectionism head on? Four steps we're going to talk about not only individually, but in the firm setting, self-compassion growth mindset, redefining what success is and coaching and coaching and mentoring. Self-compassion. Right. This being kind. An understanding. Real understanding towards oneself. When you're suffering or you're feeling like I'm a failure. And also recognizing that these things, pain and failure, are unavoidable aspects of the shared human experience. Mindfulness, maintaining this mindful awareness of one's emotions instead of focusing on the negative. Going to that pessimism overidentifying with the painful thoughts. Dr. Kristin Neff said practicing self-compassion involves actively comforting ourselves in the face of failure, responding just as we would to a dear friend in need. Self-compassion is also linked to enhanced, you know, happiness, satisfaction, social connectedness as well as coping strategies. It reduces our anxiety this those ruminating thoughts and depression. It really does help mitigate the distress and oftentimes dysfunction that accompany maladaptive perfectionism. You know. Gains do not come at the price of quality or productivity. They they allow us and they allow ourselves to forgive our failures and they lead to more grit and resilience. So how do we start on this self-compassion road? Well, trade out that inner critic for an inner inner coach. Take away that negative self-talk self-talk and replace it with words of encouragement. When you are encountering difficulty or you're stuck or you're procrastinating. Write it down. You know, think about it. Record these thoughts as they're coming up and then really practice and retrain your brain, reframe them in a more compassionate and supportive way. When you're struggling to find the positive, think about what you would say to a close friend or a relative who's in the same scenario, and then take those statements and reflect inward. It's like said, meditation, mindfulness that focuses on being in the presence, Developing feelings of goodwill, kindness and warmth will really help. And I've given you the link to Dr. Neff's website for all kinds of self-compassion exercises and meditations. Cultivating a growth mindset. You know, a fixed mindset is one that sees ourselves as unchangeable or we're already a finished product. You know, every sell, every success or failure is a measure of self-worth. It avoids challenges and responds really defensively, even to constructive feedback. Growth mindsets on the other side, on the other hand, cultivate through effort. They embrace and learn and grow from setbacks. It's sort of the fail forward mentality. You got to set triggers. Right when you start ruminating or getting lost in the detail. It could be a simple question like, is this helping me to achieve my goal? Or it's a mini break to calm your mind. Go on a walk. Stop these obsessive patterns. When you start to see them and listening to your emotions. If you're feeling anxious or unhappy about a task you're working on, maybe your body is telling you that you're focusing or you're going to this maladaptive perfectionist mindset. Notice them set up tiny habits that will help you enact strategies to stop yourself, to cut it off, distract yourself, maybe take a quick walk, get a cup of tea. The other thing to remember is you're not wrong, but your expectations very, very well may be fostering this rigid or absolute definition of what the end result will look like is going to deflect your attention from information that's going to present itself along the way. Right? Allow yourself to be flexible. Things will and are going to change as you start working on a task and you are not expected be infallible. Remember, failure is an opportunity, right? It's a it's a great opportunity to learn and internalize this voice of validation. And sometimes if none of. These things are working, you may want to seek some professional help. It's widely available. You can do it on telehealth. It's just fine to reach out for additional support when you need it. How to cultivate it. You know, education, reinforcement, self-compassion. Jordana Confido, who is at Fordham University, says embrace the power of yet. Right. Falling short today doesn't mean that you with a bit of effort can't succeed tomorrow. Trade can't for yet I'm just not there yet. What can I learn from the experience? Self praise. Redefining success and individual internal goal setting. You're looking at what success means for you, not what others think it can be, not what others path is. You want to your interests and definition of success can change. Looking at your goals, have I made the goals that I've set for myself? Not comparing. Being realistic. Taking baby steps and embracing failure. Coaching and mentoring. Great ways to reduce these perfectionist or maladaptive perfectionist tendencies. You know, you want to look for, you know, what you're looking for if you're going to be the mentor, what you're looking for in a mentee that may have perfectionist tendencies like we've talked about, procrastination can't get things on time, sees mistakes as a proof, as proof of inadequacy rather than a learning opportunity, intolerance of imperfection in others, unwillingness to take risks, unwillingness to ask for help. And how can you be a good mentor or a good role model? First of all, don't pretend that you have all the answers and be willing to acknowledge your own ignorance every time you say, Hey, I don't know. You give permission to your mentee to not have all the answers. I don't know. But I'm going to find out. And if possible, discuss your own mistakes and how you've learned from them. Being very careful with feedback. Right? Anything perceived as criticism can send a perfectionist into a spiral of self-doubt. Focus instead on affirmation, validation and encouragement. Help your mentee get comfortable with imperfection. You know, call out thoughts and behavior when it slides into that maladaptive perfectionism, perfectionism and challenge your mentee to recognize when he she or they are being unreasonable and help them understand and assess the difference between a major and a minor error. Help your you're really helping your mentee get comfortable with imperfection. And my closing thought. Here is, you know how we perceive our work and our lives can drastically change based upon how we think about them. Life is complex and uncertain, and so is the practice of law. The first step. Of taming your own inner perfectionist is knowing the difference between excellence and perfection. Being excellent is something that we can control. Being perfect is not. Results are often dependent on many circumstances over which. We have no control. And perfection is based on those results. You don't have to be perfect. You just have to be a perfect you. Thanks so much for listening today. I hope you found this information helpful. Thanks again.

Presenter(s)

TK
Tracy Kepler
Risk Control Consulting Director, Lawyers’ Professional Liability Program
CNA

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