The Trap of Perfection

The damage that perfection can do to lawyers

The Trap of Perfection

The findings of Phase One of the National Study on the Health and Wellness Determinants of Legal Professionals in Canada titled “Towards a Healthy and Sustainable Practice of Law in Canada” was released in late 2022, and reported that significantly higher levels of psychological distress, depression, anxiety, burnout, and suicidal thoughts are experienced by legal professionals compared to the Canadian working population overall and even greater proportions are reported by younger professionals and members of equity-seeking groups. These findings reminded me of one of the most memorable speeches I ever heard at a Call Ceremony, and it was given by Madam Justice Sandra Ballance (as she then was) in 2015. She was way ahead of her time identifying the “quest for perfection” being a problem rather than a goal. She continues to speak on this topic with her mediation colleague, former Supreme Court Judge Honourable Jane Dardi. But here’s what she said in 2015:

“On the day of my Call,” she said, “I was unaware that I would soon be learning many lessons. Some of those lessons were kind. Others felt harsh. The years passed. I am much older now… and I believe wiser. So this morning, I thought I would impart one piece of advice that I wish I had heard when I was you. I believe it would have spared me from some of the sharper growing pains that I endured. And it is a simple message: Beware the insidious danger of striving for perfection in your careers. Aiming for perfection is a dangerous mindset. It’s a crushing expectation that is bound to have the opposite effect. Instead of propelling you forward into perfection-like legal performance, it will hold you back. It can paralyze you in fear — terrified of being wrong; endlessly second-guessing yourself, and it also clouds your common sense and stymies your creativity; those attributes being indispensable for a successful career. If you try to follow a ‘perfect’ path, be it set by yourself or others — of necessity, you will be too timid to take chances, and instead, will adopt a rigid mindset that risks failing the very people you have committed to help. Subscribing to the myth of perfection can suppress your willingness to ask for help when you need it for fear that you will appear weak or poorly prepared or just plain stupid.”

I’ve repeated a good chunk of her speech (with her consent), because she and I articled and practised at the same firm together, and I probably understood her message more than any other person in the room. Her speech resonated with me and I’ve never forgotten it.

No lawyer can ever be “perfect,” and the goal of “perfection” in the legal profession may be a contributing factor toward depression, substance use, toxic workaholism, burnout, and dropping out of practice entirely. The quest for perfection can also take a toll on one’s personal life, including one’s marriage and family life. It can cause lawyers to cover-up their mistakes instead of owning up to them and asking for help from their firm, from more experienced members of the Bar, from a Bencher, or from the Lawyers Indemnity Fund. Indeed, striving for perfection in practice may actually prevent lawyers from reporting a mistake to their insurer, who may in fact be able to help “fix” the error. In short, the quest for perfection can often be a trap.

This is not to say that lawyers should be lackadaisical or complacent or strive for mediocrity in their professional lives. The fact that we all got into law school despite immense competition, articled successfully, and are still practising in some capacity means that we are smart enough to know who is buried in Grant’s Tomb and how many beans make five. We should also be smart enough to realize that the quest for perfection can be as self-defeating as it is self-destructive.

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