Fear and Failure are Precursors to Confidence and Success in the Practice of Law

This post originally appeared on Law.com

I started my legal career at one of the world’s largest law firms on September 17, 2001. I was supposed to be an M&A lawyer, but after the 9/11 terrorist attacks I was shifted to the corporate restructuring group. Planes were grounded and financial markets closed. The economy was still reeling from the dot-com crash. No one knew what was going to happen next, and companies were putting contingency plans into place, which in many cases meant preparing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

It was intense and I was unprepared. This was my first real job. I had not taken a single class in law school about bankruptcy law and everyone in my practice group was so busy that there were few opportunities to ask questions or get feedback. It was textbook trial by fire. 

The next four months were a blur of all-nighters and overwhelm. I had too much work and most of it was way beyond what I was capable of, or at least what I thought I was capable of, at the time.

It took everything I had to keep my head above water and my wits about me, which meant I had nothing left for anyone or anything else. I kept telling myself—and others, such as my wife whom I barely saw—that things would get better but I didn’t know that to be true. 

Eventually they did. The world and the markets calmed down and things took on a more manageable cadence at work. I got my head back above water. Things started clicking. I settled into a routine. I learned how to approach and solve problems. I became more organized and productive. I became a better lawyer. 

At the same time, I made lots of mistakes along the way. One of the biggest was not stopping from time to time to understand and appreciate the progress I was making. I’d move closer to my goals, but each new stage I reached became the new normal, and I’d move on to the next goal. I was moving ahead, but it didn’t feel that way. 

The point is, in the moment, it’s easy to fixate only on your struggles and failures if you never look back at how far you’ve come. If you take the time to look back, you’ll realize that the good things didn’t happen despite the bad ones; they happened because of them. Put another way, the only way to succeed is to fail.

Signs of Progress

As a lawyer, your tolerance for failure is critically important. If you fail, it means you tried. And you can’t win without trying. Michael Jordan is one of the greatest basketball players of all time. The only way he made lots of shots is because he took lots of shots (and missed a significant percentage of them). In 1923, Babe Ruth set records for the most home runs and highest batting average in a season. He also set the record for most strikeouts. If you want to hit the ball you need to swing. Sometimes you’ll miss.

Similarly, the only way you can learn to take a good deposition is to take a bad one. Failing provides valuable feedback that can be applied when you try again—and win. Success, therefore, is a byproduct of failure. As Robert F. Kennedy said, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”

Failing is a skill to be trained and refined. And as with any skill, practice makes perfect. This gets to the core of what makes the practice of law both frustrating and exhilarating. To get better at it, you need to stretch yourself. To grow you need to change. And to change you need to grow.

Growth involves a great deal of discomfort at times. For example, at some point in your career—and this point often comes quickly—you’ll be in a position where you have to make a judgment call with no one else to fall back on. Or you’ll be forced to butt heads with opposing counsel. Sooner rather than later, you’ll have to go out and pitch for new business. In myriad ways, you’ll have to get comfortable with being front and center, and for most of us that’s a place that feels pretty uncomfortable.

In all aspects of life, those who follow the path toward change and progress 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, they embrace it. Fear is not a barrier; it’s what drives them.

Fear stops young lawyers from doing many things, such as stepping up for tough assignments, putting themselves and their insights into the marketplace of ideas, and making progress on ambitious goals. Too many lawyers tell themselves they will take action “when the time is right.” But then years pass, and they’re still facing the same circumstances in their careers, despite an intense desire for change and growth.

The truth is that the only time that is ever right is right now. The steps you’ll have to take in order to become a successful lawyer are scary at times. 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 for mediocrity than you are of chasing your dreams and failing.

It takes courage to face the fear and 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. Pretty soon, you can’t help but stretch yourself in new and exciting ways.

Soon you’ll come to realize that fear is not something to avoid; it’s a feeling to embrace. In most cases, what lies on the other side of fear is growth and satisfaction.

Looking for more? Check out these related posts:

Get in the Right Mindset to Boost Your Legal Career

Think Big, Act Small and Reap the Professional Rewards

Why Lawyers Should Give Away Their Best Ideas for Free

Jay Harrington is an executive coach who blends strategic consulting and problem-solving counseling to help lawyers set and reach their business objectives.

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If you’re a lawyer interested in unlocking your potential and increasing your performance, contact me to schedule a free consultation. Through a process of coaching and consulting, I will help you to establish clear goals, identify and overcome obstacles, create and execute a strategic plan of action.

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