As a family lawyer, failing to learn from your mistakes – without feeling like a failure – can spell disaster for your career, happiness, and health. Here’s why.
By James Gray Robinson, Family Lawyer
Most lawyers would agree that the practice of law – especially family law – is demanding if not downright difficult. Not a single lawyer I know would claim that the practice of law was simple or easy. While acknowledging that the law can be complex and challenging, family lawyers still expect to be successful. When the concept of failure creeps into a lawyer’s consciousness, life can get depressing; in more cases than we’d like to admit, feelings of failure can lead to a lawyer self-medicating with alcohol or drugs.
My personal definition of failure is “not living up to expectations.” Practicing lawyers are, by definition, successful: they had to be successful in school, law school, and bar exams to become practicing lawyers. However, when we compare ourselves to others, we can feel like failures because we haven’t met our goals or done as well as others. How can we turn these disappointments into success?
Why Learning to Fail is Crucial to Success
One of the most productive and effective ways to become successful is to “take inventory” of your professional strengths and weaknesses on a regular basis, examining what you did well and what you’d change if you had a “do-over.” Remember, your arguments and strategy can be flawless and you can still lose a case due to variables beyond your control; this is where learning to fail without feeling like a failure will come in handy.
I don’t know many lawyers who take the time to do a post-mortem or examination of a meeting, trial, relationship, project, or career. What did you say or do that worked? What did you say or do that didn’t work? Make a list of both – especially what didn’t work – and review it regularly. Forgetting or failing to learn what didn’t work may doom you to repeat the misstep.
When taking your inventory, consider asking your colleagues or contemporaries to help by offering their opinions on what did or didn’t work. Different perspectives can help you focus on specific things you need to change to be more successful. Unless you’re a solo practitioner, consider having all the lawyers in your firm take their own inventories, then meet for a post-mortem on all the firm’s cases so you can learn from each other’s experiences.
As family lawyers, we often spend all of our time completing a project, looking for new clients, and moving on to the next pressing project. We seldom, if ever, take the time to reflect on what happened during our last project or case. If we make a list of things to change (or never do again), it can be a reference point for a strong trajectory in our career.
Get a New Measuring Stick for Success
Another way to recognize your success is to change the measuring stick. We often measure our performance or abilities by comparing ourselves to others. This is inherent in law firms where we are always jostling for position to make partner, and then to get larger partner shares. If this is your only measure of success, then you will often be disappointed. Here’s a better way to measure your performance: Did you give your absolute best? Did you research, study, and prepare for every possibility, or did you fly by the seat of your pants?
Ultimately, you need to decide whether you are meant to be a lawyer or not. Although we often forget this, we are human beings first and lawyers second, and being successful at the former is far more important than the latter if you want to be happy. It takes a certain kind of self-discipline, mental attitude, and passion to be a successful lawyer; sometimes, we may have to admit we are better suited doing something else.
I became a lawyer initially to please my parents. To be perfectly honest, I would have rather have been doing something else – preferably outdoors. I was a successful lawyer, so I kept practicing a lot longer than I probably should have the first time around.
A Family Lawyer Can Learn More from Failure Than Success
We need to learn from everything that we do. Keeping inventories is an excellent way to learn – as is repeating this mantra: “There are no mistakes, only learning opportunities.” People with law degrees or law licenses often make extraordinary business professionals, politicians, and CEOs. The preparation required to gain a law degree or a license makes us disciplined and focused, and few people have the talent or the mental ability to achieve these things. If practicing family law is making you miserable or jeopardizing your health, do not be afraid to explore other uses for your legal talents.
Ironically, I quit practicing law not because I was a failure but because I was too good at it – without the feelings of accomplishment and happiness that should have come with success. As I reflect on my career, I knew I wanted to do something else, but because I was successful and wanted to please my family, I couldn’t bring myself to follow my dreams.
Perhaps I would have gotten there sooner if I had been a complete failure, since that’s often the signal that we need to make a big change. If you keep failing to achieve results that make you proud, then you are in the wrong law firm, the wrong area of practice, or the wrong profession. Look very hard at what you are doing and decide what you need to change. In that regard, failure can be both liberating and fortunate.
Examine what went well and what did not, keep lists of these things to refer to regularly, don’t compare yourself to others, and look at failure for what it is: an invitation to change. As the old saying goes, if you keep doing what you are doing, you will keep getting what you are getting. If that’s not good news, then you’re likely overdue for a change.
James Gray Robinson, Esq. was a third-generation trial attorney, specializing in family law, for 27 years in his native North Carolina up until 2004. Since then he has become an individual and business consultant who works with a wide range of people, professional organizations, and leading corporations. Robinson’s mission is for all people to have fulfilling, peaceful career experiences and work environments. At the age of 64, Gray passed the Oregon bar exam and is again a licensed attorney. www.JamesGrayRobinson.com
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