Lawyer Perfectionism – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

            I am a perfectionist.  Many people consider this a positive characteristic for transactional attorneys.  I am one of those people.  However left unchecked, being a perfectionist can cause stress, wasted time and loss of income.

The Good My productivity coach, Tara Rodden Robinson, uses the term “Good Enoughism” to describe the desirable personality and work style for maximization of productivity.  I make the argument that attorneys, surgeons and others should be perfectionists.  She on the other hand argues, from her own career as a former OR nurse and more, that with experience the optimal style for those type tasks is being a perfectionist when the critical need is there but knowing when what has been done is truly “good enough” and to keep moving and close.   Perfectionism is good when needed in order for me to protect my clients but I begin to hurt myself and perhaps my clients if I don’t close the deal and move on to the next matter that is awaiting my attention.

The Bad At times perfectionism has been bad for me when it blocks me from moving forward on a matter – or even blocking me from making a good and aggressive beginning.  Several years ago I complained to an attorney friend that I was procrastinating on beginning to draft an agreement requested by a client.  That was a bad thing for my client who wanted their contract – and for me who was trying to build a new law practice.  My friend asked the question: “Are you sure it is ‘procrastination’ and not ‘perfectionism’?  Are you stalling because you fear you cannot draft the contract perfectly?”  He was dead right – the contract was a case of first impression for me.  I have never forgotten this lesson.  Sometimes perfectionism is really the underlying cause of my procrastination.

The Ugly Unchecked perfectionism can lead to some really stupid work behaviors in my experience – the “ugly”!  I have written a book which is almost ready for publication.  I have been stubbornly fooling around with formatting issues.  It is a legal book so I want it to be “perfect”.  But – does the format really have to be perfect?  Yesterday morning I spent 3 hours fooling around with the headers of the pages!  The book is formatted in sections so it was not easy to get it perfect (and I never did).  When you read my book how much will it really matter to you that my name is at the top every left-side page flush with the right margin and the book title is at the top of the every right-side page flush with the left margin?   Would you still read the book if that varied occasionally?  Would you even notice? Bringing the ugly point back to the subject of law practice, this morning I found an email I sent to my coach a couple of years ago.  In it I said “ I just drafted a simple, short agreement for a client that should have taken 20-30 minutes because I have a well developed form for what he requested.  In fact, if I had stopped when it was good enough It would have taken just about that long.  However, because I am obsessed with making it perfect and “pretty” it took an hour and 15 minutes.  I decided that it should be on one page and spent the rest of the time scaling it down and reformatting the document to achieve that objective.”  The client got the agreement and a bill for a half hour of my time.  And I lost 45 minutes of billable time.  The plus side of experiences like this is I get a good reminder that I need to be mindful to not let my tendency toward perfectionism get out of control.

In summary, perfectionism can be good and I believe has a place in law practice.  But left unchecked it can be harmful – both to the attorney and the client.  Am I alone or have any readers experienced this problem?

Comments

  1. Wow. Not sure whether to feel flattered or convicted – because you just described me to a T. (I just looked up whether it’s “T” or “tee” – seriously). I could definitely use some good-enoughism. Great advice Steve.

  2. Jim Stephens says:

    I’m not an attorney but the article is excellent and can be applied to a number of things from playing golf to song writing. Thanks. Hope it’s alright for someone to post who isn’t an attorney but I really appreciated the content subject. Thanks Steve.

  3. Jim Stephens says:

    Oh, that should have been “Jimmy”, not Jim….

  4. Tim Fielder says:

    Well Steve, I guess I am perfectly suited for sales. Lucy Goosey and always ready to move on to the next kill, only even more ready to hand the project off the a perfectionist Project Manager to clean up.

    Stay in Law, Sales would kill ya.
    Tim

  5. Nice piece Steve. I think of my self as a borderline perfectionist but then I find that I can leave typographical errors in the simplest places.

    • Steve Weaver says:

      Me too Trip. I think that is a result of looking at the agreement too many times – or seeing what I think it says rather than what it really says! That’s another topic!

  6. Rodney McCarthy says:

    Steve,

    First of all, congrats on the new website! Just saw the link from your Facebook page.

    To the topic – I think procrastination in the pursuit of perfection is so true for many creative types. Could easily apply to songwriters. Just think how many chart toppers are out there that are maybe 85% complete but the writer has stalled it in fear that it’s not perfect!

    Looking forward to working with you again soon.

    Thanks!

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