One of the most frustrating things in the law is when you aren’t happy with your job, you’re feeling a ton of pressure and stress. But when you try to communicate with the non-lawyers in your life, they don’t understand. Today, I want to talk about one specific factor that makes lawyering so stressful. The crushing expectation of perfection in the law.
This is just to give you some guidance around why you might be feeling this way. And, so you have a way to communicate what’s going on for you. Let’s get right into it!
How Does The Expectation Of Perfection In The Law Exhaust Lawyers?
A while ago, a client of mine said, “I’m completely exhausted by the expectation of perfection in the law.” I’m sure lots of you are reading this, and your mind is screaming, “Yes!”
This is extremely common among people in the law. And it’s hard because as lawyers, we tend to be fairly high-achieving people. So when you think, “I’m exhausted,” your brain goes straight to, “What’s wrong with me? Don’t I want to do a good job?”
But it’s not that you don’t want to do a good job. You’re just exhausted from trying to live up to that expectation of perfection. Let’s talk about why you might be feeling this way.
The Threat Of Imperfection In The Law
Lawyers often feel like they’re being held to this extremely high standard to be perfect. On top of that low tolerance for mistakes, there are also the licenses and ethical rules that you practice under.
So, many lawyers have this looming fear that if they make a mistake, it could ultimately result in something horrible. That alone can be completely exhausting.
The Moralization Of Mistakes
The pressure of perfection isn’t the only problem in the law. In many cases, mistakes are often seen as monumental. Even when it’s not a mistake, just a different way of doing things. There’s so much moralizing around mistakes.
Instead of seeing yourself as a human being, you see yourself as imperfect, which must be because you’re lazy or sloppy. This is an extremely toxic way of approaching things because it divides the world into perfect and imperfect people.
The Burden Of The Expectation Of Perfection In The Law
The expectation of perfection is based on an illusion that you can pay any amount of money to human beings to get something that is beyond human is completely damaging. No matter how much money you pay someone, they are still human beings.
Some lawyers may say, “Well, that’s why we get paid what we do. Essentially, we’re paid not to make mistakes.” That may be true in the sense of having clients who pay to get a certain type of outcome.
But expecting a lawyer to somehow transcend their humanity can be ultimately crushing. A lot of this comes back to these absolutely unhealthy expectations that we put on lawyers.
This expectation creates an incredibly unhealthy environment that damages so many people because people are just exhausted by the expectation of perfection in the law. The expectation of perfection is crushing, so it makes sense if you feel exhausted.
Want To Free Yourself From The Expectation of Perfection? Join The Former Lawyer Collaborative!
The conversations that we have here on the podcast are often an extension of the conversations that we have inside of my program, The Former Lawyer Collaborative. The Collab is where I work with lawyers to help them figure out an alternative career outside of the law.
I really cannot overstate the value of being in a place where you are connected with other lawyers who get what it feels like to be exhausted by the expectation of perfection. If that’s how you’re feeling, I highly encourage you to join us in The Collaborative.
It’s really important that you know that it is normal to feel exhausted by the expectation of perfection. It’s normal to feel like it is hard to communicate that to the people who aren’t lawyers and don’t understand some of the really toxic ways that the legal system works. As always, you can send me an email if you have any questions. And if you haven’t yet, I invite you to download my free guide: First Steps To Leaving The Law. Until next time, have a great week.
Mentioned In The Episode
Connect With Sarah:
Hi, and welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast. I'm your host, Sarah Cottrell. I practiced law for 10 years and now I help unhappy lawyers ditch their soul-sucking jobs. On this show, I share advice and strategies for aspiring former lawyers, and interviews with former lawyers who have left the law behind to find careers and lives that they love.
One of the things that can be so frustrating as a lawyer is you're in a position where you aren't happy with your job, you're feeling a ton of pressure and stress, and you try to communicate to people in your life who are not lawyers what's going on, and you feel like they don't entirely understand because, of course, a lot of these words that we use, like stress, anxiety, etc., can mean lots of things in different contexts. Often, lawyers feel like the people in their lives are missing what they're trying to say and at the same time don't really know how to communicate it.
So today I want to talk specifically about one specific factor that makes lawyering particularly stressful that you've probably experienced. This is just to give you some language around (1) why you might be feeling so exhausted and stressed out, and (2) a way to communicate with the people who you love about what's going on for you and why you find your job so challenging. Let's get into it.
A couple months ago, one of my clients made the following statement to me, they said, “I'm just exhausted by the expectation of perfection.” If you're a lawyer and you heard those words “I'm exhausted by the expectation of perfection,” I'm guessing you immediately felt this feeling of "Yes, yes." Here's the thing, lawyers on the whole tend to be fairly high achieving, and most lawyers are not like, "Oh, I just want to do a bad job," because this is how our brains work. We think "I'm exhausted by the expectation of perfection," and then immediately our brains go to "What's wrong with me? Don't I want to do a good job?"
Here's the thing, those two things are not the same thing, and especially in lawyering, not only do we feel like we're being held to this expectation of perfection in some esoteric way, there's also the reality that we have law licenses and ethical rules that we practice under, and theoretically, making a mistake could result in a malpractice claim, could result in losing our license. I think the challenge for lawyers that can be hard to understand, if you're not someone who's working in this industry, is that not only do we often have a workplace where there is very little tolerance for mistakes, and not even mistakes, just things being different from how the person we're working for would like them to be, but also we have this real legitimate situation where if you make certain types of mistakes, it could cost you your entire legal career.
There are so many lawyers who have that hum underneath everything all the time, like, "If I make a mistake, it could ultimately result in this parade of horribles." That's incredibly stressful. The reality is that while that may not be true in the sense of “on any particular day with any particular thing that you're doing, is it ultimately going to end up in that place?” No. But we live in this professional reality where there tends to be not only this pressure to behave and act and work in a perfect way because of this underlying fear of perhaps my entire professional life will go up and smoke, there's also the reality that often, not only are mistakes treated as these monumental things even when they are extremely small, and like I said, even when they aren't really so much mistakes, as just things that a superior might have done differently, but also there's so much moralizing around making mistakes. It's not just that you're a human being who is not 100% perfect all the time, it's that you are not perfect and that must be because you aren't careful, you're lazy, you're sloppy, etc.
I think there are a lot of reasons why in the profession, these ideas run rampant. One of the reasons I think is that the pressure to perform at this level that is inhuman, unhuman, where there are absolutely no imperfections, that pressure results in people needing to tell themselves that they're not that kind of person who makes mistakes, which all of us are human, so on some level, we all know that in fact we make mistakes. But there's this internalized narrative that is propagated in the legal profession where we feel like we need to tell ourselves, "Oh, I wouldn't make a mistake like that," or "I wouldn't do that," or “Someone who is imperfect in a particular way that could actually create some jeopardy for their legal career, that person is somehow fundamentally different from me.” It's this very unhealthy and toxic way of approaching things because it divides the world into essentially people who are perfect and therefore safe, and then people who are imperfect.
So many lawyers are constantly laboring under this belief that they need to be one of the perfect ones and this is perpetuated in so many different ways. I'm sure if you think about the place that you work and some of the ways that people respond to mistakes, some of the pressures that you feel about not making mistakes, if you think about it, you can probably see how some of these actions or these ways of responding definitely have underlying them this moralizing, this certain types of people vibe to it that is just frankly gross and also, again, to return to the point earlier, untrue, because we are all human. I know I've said this before, but you can pay someone all of the money in the world, you can pay someone so much money, no matter how much money you pay someone, they are still a human being.
I often have heard people say something along the lines of, "Well, that's why we get paid what we do because essentially, we're paid not to make mistakes," and the reality is while there is a certain level of truth to that in the sense of you do have clients who pay a lot in order to get a certain type of work product, a certain type of service, the reality is that expectation is based on an illusion that you can pay any amount of money to human beings and get from those human beings something that is beyond human. The problem with having an expectation that someone is going to somehow transcend their humanity is that they are not because they are human. An expectation that they will be more than human is going to crush them.
Of course, unsurprisingly for me, a lot of this comes back to these absolutely unhealthy expectations that we put on lawyers where we essentially tell them, not in so many words but implicitly, that in order to be a good lawyer, you need to not be human, you need to not make mistakes, you need to not have flaws. Again, this is not a question of “Should you do good work? Should you work hard? Should you be diligent? Should you be careful in your work?” Of course, you should, but there is a world of difference between all of those things and someone being perfect and never making mistakes.
In the law, we often equate them and we're creating this incredibly unhealthy environment that really does damage to so many people because, again, like my client said to me, people are being exhausted by the expectation of perfection. The expectation of perfection is crushing, and so it makes sense if you feel exhausted by the expectation of perfection, you should. It is exhausting. That's what I wanted to talk about today. I just wanted to say that if you are feeling like, "Yes, Sarah, you're saying this stuff and I totally feel it and resonate," the kind of conversations that we have here on the podcast are often an extension of the conversations that we have inside of my program The Former Lawyer Collaborative. That's where I work with lawyers to help them figure out what it is that they want to do that isn't practicing law.
I really cannot overstate the value of being in a place where you are connected with other lawyers who get it, who get what it feels like to be exhausted by the expectation of perfection, who get what it feels like to try to explain to non-lawyer significant others or family or friends what it is that is so crushing about your job, and often so hard to articulate. If that's how you're feeling, I highly encourage you to consider joining us in The Collaborative. You can go to formerlawyer.com/collab to see all the information about how to do that.
As always, of course, you can send me an email if you have any questions. Thank you so much for listening today. It's really important to me that you know that it is normal to feel exhausted by the expectation of perfection and it is normal to feel like it is hard to communicate that to the people who you love, your friends, and your family who aren't lawyers and don't understand some of the really toxic ways that this profession works. I look forward to having more of these conversations with you.
Thanks so much for listening. I absolutely love getting to share this podcast with you. If you haven't yet, I invite you to download my free guide: First Steps to Leaving the Law at formerlawyer.com/first. Until next time, have a great week.
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