Here’s an immutable truth: As a young lawyer, you’re going to make a mistake. The question is: How are you going to deal with it? A simple question, yes, but one with profound implications for a young lawyer’s career.
Some people can let a mistake, and the implications that may result from it, roll off their backs. Lesson learned. Move on.
But for others, mistakes lead to longer-term harmful consequences. They become paralyzed for fear of making another one.
This happened to me, and if I’m honest with myself, I never quite got over it. Looking back, it was a moment that I never shook. It was a crossroads that took me down a path that I never anticipated when I graduated from law school.
I no longer practice law. I don’t regret my decision to leave the practice for a second. I love what I do now. But I can’t help but think that things could have been different. Making a big mistake was inevitable – it happens to everyone. But if I knew then what I know now, would I have chosen a different path?
MISTAKES ARE INEVITABLE –
IT’S HOW YOU DEAL WITH THEM THAT MATTERS
It was about 15 months after I started practicing. I finally felt like I was in a pretty good groove. I was more confident about my abilities and taking on greater responsibility in my cases. I had lots of direct client contact, was dealing with opposing counsel, resolving issues, and coordinating directly with the judge’s staff regarding hearings and scheduling.
Then, in a one week span, my name appeared in the body of two pleadings filed by opposing counsel with the court in a corporate bankruptcy case I was working on. Both pleadings sought relief to late file proofs of claim forms for creditors who allegedly held claims against my client. In both instances the pleadings described conversations I had with opposing counsel, conversations which were used to suggest that I had consented to the relief sought.
I hadn’t consented, and I believe that both opposing attorneys resorted to a desperate, duplicitous tactic in order to save themselves from the consequences of missing the filing deadline. But nonetheless I screwed up in the sense that I didn’t see it coming and left the door open by not documenting things in writing through a follow up letter or email after the conversations at issue. Part sloppiness, part naivete.
At the end of the day, the issues (as most do) got resolved. But the client wasn’t thrilled, and neither were my superiors. Conflicts counsel had to be brought into the case because there was a chance that I would have to submit an affidavit or testify if the issues had to be litigated. It didn’t help that later that week, at the firm holiday party, one of the partners on the case approached and greeted me with, “You’re famous!”. He was referring to my name being in the pleadings. He also made reference to a certain part of my anatomy “being in a sling.” He was joking…sort of. More like passive aggressive joking. There’s no doubt that he wanted to deliver the message – a message that no doubt needed to be delivered – that I should be more careful in the future.
The whole experience shook me up. And it impacted how I behaved and approached my work. I started acting really cautious – overly so – with opposing counsel. I tried to conduct all communication via email, despite the fact that a simple phone call would have been much more efficient. I also began running way too many things by my superiors in an attempt to cover my ass. Eventually I pulled myself together and got things back on track.
But, looking back, I don’t think I ever quite got over it. While I had a successful – albeit short – career as a lawyer (in big firms and in the small firm I founded), I began approaching each matter in an overly defensive manner. I was afraid of making another mistake.
WHY WE FEAR WHAT WE FEAR
Our genetic predisposition is to avoid danger. We fear, we flee. That’s an instinct that dates back millennia and has allowed humans to consistently outwit the saber tooth tigers of the world. A more recent phenomenon, though, is fleeing not just fear of physical harm, but fear of mental and emotional discomfort as well.
Author and marketing guru Seth Godin attributes this type of fear to the “lizard brain,” our prehistoric brain stem that is responsible for revenge, fear and anger. Godin explains that “The lizard brain is eternally vigilant, trying to keep people from noticing you (which is dangerous). The lizard brain hates failure, and thus it hates creativity or the launch of anything that might make a fuss (which can lead to failure).”
The lizard brain doesn’t want you to feel vulnerable, to feel inadequate, to change, to feel anxiety. It’s what led me to practice from a defensive posture. The lizard brain is vigilant and relentless. It doesn’t take a day off. It’s there every time you step in front of a microphone or sit down at a keyboard. In life outside of the law, It’s what keeps you from raising your hand at a PTA meeting or expressing your heartfelt opinion in a public setting.
The lizard brain cannot be gotten rid of. It can only be complied with or confronted. In other words, if you desire to make a difference and do work that matters, what you must seek is not the absence of fear, but rather the ability to push through the fear in spite of how you feel.
Author Steven Pressfield refers to the fear we all feel as the “resistance.” The resistance is what leads us to make decisions based not on what we desire, but rather what we think others desire of us. It’s the voice in your head that reminds you of your past foibles, and urges you to avoid situations that can lead to new discomfort.
THE TWO PATHS
Your career, therefore, comes down to a choice between two paths. One feels safe, the other fraught with risk. One lies within the comfort zone, the other outside of it. One leads away from fear, the other straight toward it.
As a lawyer, you’re going to make mistakes. It’s up to you how you deal with them.
“Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us.” Steven Pressfield
Those who follow the second path are not fearless. In fact, they often feel fear more acutely than those who choose to walk a more well trod path. But they don’t run from the fear, and learn, as Godin says, to “dance” with it. Fear is not a barrier – it’s what drives them.
Accomplished lawyers acknowledge their mistakes and learn the appropriate lessons from them. They stay aggressive, and continue to push boundaries. They don’t avoid uncomfortable situations – they confront them head on.
“When we deny our fear, we make it stronger.” Seth Godin
Fear stops us from doing so many things, such as learning a new skill, seeking to work with that difficult partner, or having a difficult conversation. We tell ourselves that we will take action “when the time is right.” But the only time that is ever right is right now. Waiting for the fear to go away is a hopeless strategy – it never will. At some point you have to be more afraid of settling than you are of chasing your dream and failing.
Lawyers who advance in their careers are those who continue to clear new hurdles. They get tripped up, but every stumble is a step forward.
“The pain of not doing it is worse than the pain of doing it.” Steven Pressfield
We also tell ourselves that we don’t take action because we lack confidence. But confidence is not what is required, courage is. In fact, when pushing boundaries, almost no one is confident. The courageous few do something anyway.
Growing as a lawyer is a daily struggle. Every matter is a new challenge. And every action and interaction is fraught with risk. If you want to succeed, you must push on, nonetheless.
“The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.” Steven Pressfield
It takes courage to face the fear, to move toward it. But the more you face it, the more it becomes a habit. You learn that taking the plunge is not as scary as you thought, so you leap again. And again.
“Habits are more powerful than fears.” Seth Godin
Soon you come to realize that fear is not to be avoided, but to be embraced. You grab fear by the throat and never let go. The courageous lawyer is not one who has never made a mistake, but rather the one who has made many and learned to overcome them.
“Use fear as a compass to push you toward bringing your best creative work to life.” Seth Godin
In this sense fear is contagious because it breeds courage. And it feels good to be courageous. Just as the extreme athlete seeks the edge, so too does the successful, innovative lawyer.
“The more scared we are of a work or a calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.” Steven Pressfield
It’s easy to succumb to fear, to the lizard brain, and simply keep your head down, telling yourself that you’ll chase that dream later, when the time is right. That you’ll start taking on tougher challenges in your career once you have more experience and have acquired more wisdom. But it will never be the right time. You will never feel comfortable. No matter how diligently you seek it, you will never have reassurance.
“Soon is not as good as now.” Seth Godin
Ours is a world of limited resources – the most finite of which is time. And time is not on your side. It marches on relentlessly and you can’t get it back. That’s why it’s critical for young lawyers to figure out their goals and starting acting toward them, no matter how scary the journey.
“Being aware of your fear is smart. Overcoming it is the mark of a successful person.” Seth Godin
You must make this journey not only for yourself, but for all of us. The world needs your gift. If you let fear rule your life, you’re depriving others of your greatness. So stop wavering. Stop worrying. Stop hesitating.
Start believing – then act. You’re going to make mistakes. That’s okay – so does everyone else. Just push forward. And never forget that the first step is always the hardest.
Want to learn more about how a young lawyer can get off on the right foot in his or her career? Download my new eBook (it’s free!), How to Start Fast as a Law Firm Associate today.