Less Perfect, More Happy


Over the years I have worked with a number of lawyers that struggle with perfectionism, and I might even call myself a recovering perfectionist. Some of those perfectionists don’t see perfectionism as a problem, however. To them, their problems are caused by clients with unrealistic expectations about time frames or legal costs. Others lament the necessity of doing everything themselves because their direct reports don’t do a high quality job.

I understand a lawyer’s desire to make sure that her work product is above reproach. Not only is the legal world industry highly competitive, but how many other professionals (outside of sports) have counterparts who are paid to ferret out their mistakes and exploit them?

Clients, however, weigh their legal fees against their risks. Most would rather save money with “good enough” than pay for perfect. I’ve previously written about how this preference is fueling the rise of Legal Zoom and other “alternative legal services.” Even big corporate clients want their lawyers to analyze whether they really need so many depositions to prove their case or whether an exact answer to a legal question is more valuable than a ballpark response for the matter at hand.

In the past, my conversations with lawyers about perfectionism centered on getting and keeping clients, or reducing staff turnover. Lately, however, I’ve had a lot more discussions about the relationship between perfectionism and lawyer unhappiness.

A client recently shared with me Kelly O’Laughlin’s blog post entitled Want to Be Happy at Work? Care Less About It. In that article O’Laughlin said, “If you relate to this story so far, I’m willing to bet that your 80% of effort is most people’s 100%. So, by caring less, you’re actually caring just enough.” She also asserted that “[p]utting in slightly less effort in times of high stress doesn’t mean you don’t care about your job; it means you care about yourself more.” 

I would suggest that caring too much can actually hurt our clients and ourselves. It causes us to procrastinate when we aren’t certain how to proceed. It drives us to revise and revise before we even get a first draft completed. Then, when the deadline looms, our stress skyrockets, and we are forced to turn in a less-than-perfect job anyway.

O’Laughlin was not suggesting in her article that you stop caring. She was just talking about dialing it back a bit, in order to be more effective. I’m not suggesting that you should produce sloppy or low quality work. I am suggesting that you need a rheostat instead of an on-off switch, to adapt to client needs.

As I think about this subject, I’m reminded of how rheostats get used in our house. My husband and I have different preferences, based on what is effective for us individually. Sometimes I kind of read and watch TV at the same time. He complains about the brightness of light, and he turns it down. He also turns down the light in our master bath suite in the mornings.

I used to get annoyed and think he was unreasonable, because it affected my ability to read at night or to put on my makeup in the morning. He continued to insist on dimmer lights, however. Eventually I acknowledged that maybe this was a real need of his, as opposed to a selfish quirk. I admitted to myself that “dimmer” didn’t mean “dark.”

I adapted my requirements by reading on my iPad with its own light source and getting a lighted makeup mirror. Although it wasn’t my first choice, each of those accommodations turned out to have additional advantages for me that I appreciated. The makeup mirror has a magnifier side that I love. With an iPad handy on the sofa, I can access a lot of other resources beyond one article. So, when I became willing to “dial it back a bit” a frustration turned into a win-win solution, and I got happier.

Sometimes it is necessary to “care a little less” and provide a product that is “good enough” in order to be effective in serving clients that have needs or preferences that conflict with ours. Sometimes when we do dial it back, we find a “middle way” that is better for everyone. We let go of perfectionism and become more efficient, which reduces the client’s legal bill and lets us get home sooner.

We can let go of having to be “right” in every argument, too. (Come on, admit it. You’ve heard that complaint before, haven’t you?) We can ask ourselves “How important is it?” Then by giving in on the relatively unimportant issues we can smooth things over at home, with our coworkers, or even with opposing counsel. We may later gain cooperation or concessions on something that really matters to us or our clients.

“Good enough” might just translate into “happy enough.”

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

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One comment on “Less Perfect, More Happy

  • You have gifted some great coaching advice for lawyers and paralegals alike who struggle with perfectionism. While it can be the source of much success, it can also be the source of much anxiety from those items which never seem to get checked off that task list. It can also be the culprit for malpractice when an important pleading is not filed in time because it is “just not perfect, something is missing.” Great article, great topic.

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