I am told there is a fad wherein you get up on a faux bicycle, and make your legs go around on pedals as fast as possible until the room starts spinning. To my Cheetos-stained mind, this sounds like an awful idea. (Hey, at least my mind is not nicotine-stained.) But the “spinning” I am talking about goes by several different identities: panic, anxiety, etc. It is caused by a single source: error.
As lawyers, we are expected to be perfect. Oh, not perfect people, oh no no no. But perfect in our writing, analysis, and so on. Laypeople have no understanding of the pressure that we regularly practice under, be it in Biglaw, or for overly anal-retentive judges. We are not allowed mistakes, there is no such thing as a first draft, there is instead a “perfect” draft that gets reviewed to the level of uber-perfect. However, because we are human, and not perfect, there is always a chance for disaster — missing a deadline, missing a citation, or worse.
Once error is introduced into our perfect worlds, spinning can set in if not immediately and staunchly held in check. Now, it is true that we aren’t following the NYC St. Patrick’s Day parade on shovel duty, but the pressure under which we practice manifests itself in some horrible things such as alcoholism, divorce, and suicide….
If you find yourself suffering from error-induced nausea, first, retrace your steps. For instance, if a senior VP has called you (or emailed you) and asked why such and such was recommended, and why did you ruin the very large deal, take a breath. Go back over your email chain and retrace what happened, and why. I have found that more often than not, the “error” is not mine, and someone else is at fault. Make no mistake, I am not advocating CYA at all costs, in fact, I have written before about taking responsibility for the good and the bad, early and often. But this column deals with error, and the avoidance of panic. Plus, if you can figure out what went wrong, you may be able to help solve the problem that has arisen. You can go from zero to hero in a matter of minutes.
Second, once you have retraced the timeline of what occurred, figure out a solution. It may well be that the solution to a seeming catastrophe is simple and easy. If so, great. But, if you need to dive deeper to solve the problem, the quicker you can get a handle on the problem, you may be able to avoid the onset of panic. I am not giving eye opening advice here; this may be second nature to those of you who are cool, calm, and without souls. But, for the rest of us, we coast on the rails of attempting to attain perfection. It is demanded by our superiors, and we even demand it of ourselves.
Third, once you have a handle on what went wrong, take a breath. I guarantee that the world is truly not going to end. There are very few errors that are termination worthy. Especially if you’ve worked very hard to attain a reputation of good work and your clients have come to trust you. Remember that everyone screws up sometime, and this happens to be your personal nightmare. However, the sun will come up tomorrow, and you will get through this. Dealing with the stress that comes with our jobs is not taught in any class, but it is a necessary skill that one must practice. Nothing good ever comes from negativity, and allowing yourself to spin down into a whirlpool of panic will most certainly not resolve whatever issue is at hand.
A friend of mine is a hypochondriac. Once a small symptom presents, this person is on the Internet researching what malady with which they might have been cursed. I often tell this person that they are spinning, and 99% of the time they are. Of course, there is the possibility that the 1% of the time will turn out to be the worst case, but if you live with the fear of the 1%, I honestly don’t know how you can get out of bed in the morning.
After two federal clerkships and several years as a litigator in law firms, David Mowry is happily ensconced as an in-house lawyer at a major technology company. He specializes in commercial leasing transactions, only sometimes misses litigation, and never regrets leaving firm life. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.