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Being Different in Law’s Perfection-Obsessed Culture

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how perfectionism wrecks the legal profession, particularly for lawyers who aren’t the stereotypical white guy. Mind you, perfectionism makes everyone’s life unnecessarily difficult, regardless of background or gender. Perfectionism in law drives so much toxic and maladaptive behaviors, it deserves a few posts. (here and here, too)

But in the wake of the renewed focus on Black Lives Matter, it’s really hit me hard just how much worse it is for lawyers who are Black, Latinx, Asian, LGBTQ, or just different from the stereotypical managing partner at a Top 50 firm.

Before I dive into that, though, I should talk about what perfectionism is, and is not.

What Perfectionism Is

Psychology Today defines perfectionism really well:

Perfectionism is a trait that makes life an endless report card on accomplishments or looks. When healthy, it can be self-motivating and drive you to overcome adversity and achieve success. When unhealthy, it can be a fast and enduring track to unhappiness.

What makes extreme perfectionism so toxic is that while those in its grip desire success, they are most focused on avoiding failure, resulting in a negative orientation. They don’t believe in unconditional love, expecting others’ affection and approval to be dependent on a flawless performance.

(emphasis added)

As a lawyer friend of mine said many years ago about the culture of Washington, D.C.,

“It’s like everyone wants to get that A, in lunch.”

That is perfectionism in a nutshell—caring about doing something perfectly that no sane person gives a rat’s rear about.

What Perfectionism Is Not

Right about now, I’m sure that many of you are asking, “But how else will high-quality work get done, if we don’t aim for perfection?”

If you’re focused on being perfect because you’re fearful of being judged, you’ve already set yourself up to perform more poorly. That’s because fear comes from the amygdala part of the brain.

“When the amygdala senses danger, it actually blocks our prefrontal cortex (responsible for critical thinking) in order to react swiftly. . . . Even a remote threat of failure or embarrassment can trigger a stress response and hijack our idea-generating, problem-solving brilliance,”

says Dr. Jena Field, a London-based therapist who works with clients on roadblocks to happiness and things that kill creativity.

Fear leads to less creativity in solving problems, and an inability to adapt. Being driven by fear is a fool’s errand.

Instead, we do our best work when we focus on the excellence we can create under the conditions we have in that moment.

Be Excellent

In the VIA assessment of Character Strengths & Values (my favorite assessment for clients), one of the 24 values is Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence:

Those who express an appreciation of beauty & excellence notice and appreciate beauty, excellence and/or skilled performance in all domains of life, from nature to art to mathematics to science to everyday experience.

The difference between perfectionism and appreciation of excellence is the emotions that drive each one. Perfectionism is driven by fear of not being enough—smart enough, pretty or handsome enough, hard-working enough, organized enough, polished enough—on and on the list goes.

Those who pursue excellence are driven by the challenge of learning and improving. They truly enjoy those things. Sure, they set high goals and have high standards, so their actions can look the same as what perfectionists do. But if they fall short of their ideal, they don’t collapse into a pool of self-loathing. Sure, they have regrets, but they see what they can learn, and then move on.

Yes, You Can Be an Excellence-Loving Perfectionist!

Just to make things more confusing, perfectionism and pursuing excellence often exist side-by-side in one person. I am absolutely one of those people. On the one hand, I really adored well-crafted briefs when I was in practice. I worked with a former Justice White clerk, and reading his drafts and edits was bliss.

But I also had (um, have?) a crap-ton of perfectionistic tendencies. Those looked like:

  • procrastination, because I was so scared of falling short that I kept avoiding those memos and briefs until the last second;
  • avoiding challenges, because, again, I was scared of failing; and
  • comparing my work ethic and hours to other attorneys, who didn’t have a serious chronic illness or a high ACES (adverse childhood experiences) score. People with high ACES are prone to toxic perfectionism, naturally.

Sending Drunks to the Liquor Store

The toxic culture of law does not help any of us with perfectionist tendencies. It’s  sending unrecovered alcoholics to the liquor store with $500, and expecting them to forego all the glorious beer, wine, and bourbon around them, and just buy the overpriced hors d’oeurves.

It will not end well.

Person on city sidewalk in camo pants, black t-shirt, wearing panda head, holding wine bottles, leaning against lamp post
Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Lawyers are trained to seize upon the slightest error and build it into Denali, if it suits their purposes. Problem is, that way of approaching legal issues usually turns into a life approach.

Pretty quickly after we start practicing, we find out the hard way that any error = very bad. The real-world consequences of a mistake are usually ignored; it’s the fact of a mistake at all, in any form, that matters (especially for lawyers of color, those who are LGBTQ, and women).

It matters not that the mistake has no impact on your analysis, or that the person shrieking about it has made the same mistake, multiple times. Of course, if the senior lawyer is “comfortable” with you, then any number of errors, including possible malpractice, are magically forgiven.

I know so many lawyers who operate like this in both their personal and professional lives that it obviously isn’t my own, unique experience.

Perfectionism, Weaponized

What’s worse is how this perfectionism tendency is weaponized against minority lawyers. Being born with a darker skin color automatically makes you different in law. Perfectionism gets used against any lawyer who is perceived as different from the traditional lawyer.

In addition to racial differences, a man who is too empathetic or doesn’t like sports, a woman who is too aggressive, a person who doesn’t fit squarely into gender norms—all of those so-called different lawyers can make firm decision-makers uncomfortable. The different ones will likely find themselves without challenging projects or mentors, and end up leaving law in disgust, frustration, or a sense of failure.

I’ve noticed for many years how my Black and Asian clients get particularly worried about making mistakes, whether or not they want to leave law. Of course we talked about perfectionism generally, but I was blinder than I like admitting about the reasons for that.

I saw that there were many perfectionist expectations from their cultures, but I did not go deeper than that. And I’m very, very sorry that it took the recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, and all that has followed, to really see the deep, racist roots of that perfectionism.

I don’t think I would have given substantially different advice or suggestions, but I sure would have expressed more understanding of why they felt such pressure to be perfect. It’s not easy to exorcise the demons of perfectionism driven by a dysfunctional upbringing/environment, which I believe many lawyers have.

But it’s nearly impossible to exorcise a demon that is ubiquitous, and hunts you down daily, one way or another.

pigeon on head of Greek statue of nude man standing with head in palm of hand
Photo by Alejandro Morelos on Unsplash

So What Now?

Let me be clear: The solution isn’t to simply accept the idea of living a fearful, perfection-driven life. Nor is the solution to aim for a fear-free life, complete with wacky, reality-denying beliefs that there is no place for fear in a successful life.

Fear has its uses. Fear keeps us safe when a car is barreling down the road at us. Fear keeps us safe when our spidey-sense tells us someone is a threat, as many women can attest. Fear draws our attention to something that is very wrong in our lives.

The rampant, fear-driven perfectionism in law, though, does not help us. It creates:

  • deep insecurities,
  • rigid all-or-nothing thinking,
  • isolation,
  • procrastination, and
  • an inability to experiment and innovate.

Not one of these consequences is helpful to individuals, or to the profession.

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain."

If you’ve seen yourself while reading this, fantastic! You have an idea where to start unpacking some of your unhappiness in law. Maybe it’s not the actual practicing of law that makes you miserable, but your self-created, perfectionistic hell. You can fix that, I promise.

Say It Out Loud

The legal industry as a whole must fix its fetish with perfection. In the end, calling out colleagues on their weaponized perfectionism benefits everyone, especially lawyers who are different from the norm. It doesn’t require money to address. You don’t need anyone’s permission. It’s a step you can take within the next week, I’ll wager.

Noticing out loud when another lawyer is out of line is an important start to shift the toxic culture of law, one conversation at a time. Yes, it might be daunting. Even terrifying. But it is past time for the profession to get its act together when it comes to discrimination, and this is something individuals—especially those who are favored in law—can actually do to start real change.

More globally, if law cannot extinguish its perfectionism obsession, the industry will likely morph into something small and ugly. Seismic shifts happen daily in the profession, courtesy of both technology and the pandemic. The legal industry needs desperately to adapt and evolve in the face of so much change. The perfectionist mindset of legal industry leaders is a huge barrier to making smart changes.

If the profession remains in the thrall of perfectionism’s rigid thinking, law will not adapt, change, and thrive. No matter what, the industry certainly won’t survive in its current form. That might be a great thing, if the change is intentional and thoughtful. We could have happier lawyers, substantially decreased racism and discrimination within the industry, and maybe even improved access to legal services.

That sounds better that than a dysfunctional wreck of a profession, yes?

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer and a recovering perfectionist. It’s always a work in progress. If you want to work on changing from perfectionist to a pursuer of excellence, you can reach Jennifer at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com .

6 comments

    1. Thanks! It’s taken me a while to process all this chaos in the world. Glad it was helpful for you.

  1. Very true. Perfectionism is so difficult even more so when you feel not only the eyes of other attorneys but the idea that you represent your race/group/gender/etc. Love the quote from Dune. Have used it often before law school and have found it is good to revive it now.

    1. I adored the original 4 Dune books when I was in high school, back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. I got it to re-read, but now I have to wait on my spouse, who absconded with it!
      I hope you are holding up OK, PPJ. Keep the faith!

  2. I believe the principle is universal and has application beyond race, which is but an example. Try living in a small town with intellectual pursuits. Anyone who is different from the “moral tribe” is in for a rough time and the profession of law accentuates that. The nature of ‘perfection’ is from the J S Mill like dominant opinion and arises from that dominant opinion gazing in the mirror to see with utmost narcissistic clarity thereby beholding what perfection looks like.

  3. I agree that it’s a universal principle in group dynamics. And as one who grew up in a small town in Kentucky, I absolutely know about being the smarty-pants weirdo!
    However, I can’t agree that weaponizing perfection on a racial basis is the same. It’s more extreme, it’s more pervasive, and it’s unrelenting, as we have sadly seen in its full awfulness lately.

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