The Lawyer’s Demon: Perfectionism

Perfectionists love to say that they’re not trying to be perfect, they’re just trying to do ________ right. Semantics, people.

Perfectionism is about trying to stave off blame and shame. And as we all know, lawyers have superpowers when it comes to inflicting shame and shifting blame, and they use them for evil in a nanosecond.

businessman and devil figures
Perfectionism makes all kinds of deals with the devil, including in your career and worklife. Maybe it's time for an exorcism.

The reason this shaming behavior works so well in the legal profession is that almost all lawyers grew up living to other people’s standards, not their own. They bought in early to earning approval and acceptance through achievement and performance.

As Brené Brown points out in The Gifts of Imperfection, those are things like:

  • Grades
  • Rule-following,
  • Sports,
  • People-pleasing
  • Appearance, and
  • Manners

The foundation of this belief system is that “I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it.” That’s why BigLaw attorneys, for example, can’t cope with the idea of moving to a small firm that isn’t a prestigious, high-profile boutique. Brand-name law firm equals accomplishment, while run-of-mill law firm doesn’t. That’s also why the idea of pursuing an alternative legal career is simply terrifying: It’s stepping off the accomplishment path.

Perfectionism is one of the reasons so many of my clients have no idea what they actually like, or what they’re actually meant to do. They have been pleasing other people for so long, and ignoring their own desires for equally long, that the pathway to feeling their true heart and desires has suffered from uncleared rockfalls and other debris. Blasting through that rubble takes time and effort, but it’s really worth it.

Raging and Blaming

The alternative is to dwell in what Brown calls our rage-and-blame culture. It’s an exhausting way to live, and more than the actual number of hours lawyers work (which are criminal), the rage-and-blame culture of law firms and many other legal environments is why lawyers are so drained all the time, even when they’re away from the office for a magical few days.

Plus, as Brown notes, that exhaustion prevents us from having the energy to form meaningful connections in our lives. I said for years before I left Washington, D.C. that no one there had time to be your friend, and it’s still quite true. People, including lawyers, pour all their time and effort into their jobs, hoping to get that coveted stamp of “I’m perfect now that I’ve worked so hard and so long.” That stamp is always just out of reach, and they lose the gifts and solace that connection could bring them.

Lest you think that your perfectionism only affects you, you might want to ponder Brown’s assertion: “Perfectionism never happens in a vacuum. It touches everyone around us. We pass it down to our children, we infect our workplaces with impossible expectations, and it’s suffocating for our friends and families.”

Next time, I’ll talk about some strategies for derailing perfectionism at work, in your career search, and in other areas of life.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer and recovering perfectionist who published this blog post even though she feels it’s far from perfect. She helps unhappy attorneys step away from their perfectionism so they can discover a joyful, connected career and life. Join her on the phone July 6 at 1:30 ET for the Unhappy Lawyers Book Club to discuss driving out your perfectionism demons. Or schedule a sample coaching session to get more personalized help by emailing


  1. Excellent point – when you have lived by others’ opinions or demands (so common in “good” children with ambitious families) it really does take a while to get back to yourself. My first week at my first legal job, the kindly and on her way out marketing person asked what I did for fun, and what my interests were, so that we could get me on a board, etc. I was stumped. What did I do for fun? Drink beer and watch Seinfeld reruns after I finished studying. Read cookbooks. That was about it. Then it upset me – why couldn’t I come up with anything?

    “Impossible” is right too. No one can ever be good enough to please (the self, someone else) when that perfection is demanded so that everything will seem fine, the rest of the world will go away, lifetime dominance as best person ever will be achieved, etc. You can’t win that game.

    • I like the phrase “lifetime dominance as best person ever”.

      As a young person, that was certainly my goal. That combined with “most intelligent / most moral person” ever.

      I tried that in high school. Then, because I was burnt out and could no longer effortlessly dominate (although I had sporadic victories), I tried catastrophic faliure and complete surrender/despair (in college).

      Then I tried law school, at first using a continuation of the catastrophic falure model (my 1L year – don’t attend classes, and don’t care), then a “basic function” approach, which gained employment.

      From there, I moved to a “basic function / avoid loss of job / avoid malpractice model”.

      • Even on my very best days “avoid loss of job / avoid malpractice” is still a major goal. Nothing wrong with that goal.

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