Sep 9. 2019

Reframing Failure as Opportunity

If there’s one thing lawyers are not good at, it’s failure.

Even though the legal profession is structured around wins and losses—clients, motions, trials—when we do not succeed, it can affect everything from our sense of self-worth to our physical bodies. Our discomfort with these feelings, according to Professor Bradley Staats, leads us to “try to cover it up instead of learn from it,” as we distance ourselves from the failure as quickly as possible.

Why bring failure out into the open?

  1. To recognize what is out of your control

Although some failure is preventable, Amy Edmondson of the Harvard Business School has identified two additional types of failure: complex and intelligent. With complex failure, “we have a good understanding about what needs to be done” but other factors are at play that prevent success. Intelligent failure comes about as a result of doing something innovative, when we encounter previously unknown challenges that we must figure out how to overcome.

  1. To learn what went wrong and how to do better moving forward

When we acknowledge that failure is not a weakness or a character flaw, we can use failure in a productive way. It becomes possible to discuss the factors that contributed to the outcome without worrying about assigning blame. Instead, we can focus on building understanding so we can move forward: What worked? What didn’t? What can we learn? What can we do to improve next time?

  1. To build positive working relationships

Talking about failure with colleagues can also build strong relationships. Research shows that sharing failures can make people “seem more approachable and relatable in the workplace.” When discussions of failure are framed as an opportunity for others to provide input, people feel that their opinions and experience are valued. Everyone is working together to learn and improve outcomes.

How can reframing failure benefit me as a lawyer?

When you are able to see failures as opportunities for learning—and be open with colleagues in order to move forward—the skills you develop can help you adapt to changes in the legal profession.

  • You become more comfortable with risk and uncertainty.

While striving for perfection and immediate results may make good lawyers, these skills “don’t necessarily make us good business generators.” In fact, business development requires that you put yourself out there—without the promise of success—and build connections over time.

  • You are able to focus on collaboration

When success is understood as something more than winning, this allows you to work with clients and colleagues in more innovative ways. These skills become essential as areas of legal practice become more specialized, firms establish a global presence, and clients come with more complex issues.

  • You develop resilience

The National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being has identified resilience as an essential skill. One of the keys to building resilience, according to expert Paula Davis-Laack, is “thinking flexibly about challenges and framing adversity in an accurate way.

No one can be successful all the time, not even lawyers. Accepting losses as a necessary part of work can build resilience, improve relationships with colleagues, and develop the skills needed for a changing profession. It is when we reframe failure as an opportunity for growth that we truly see the benefits.


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