It’s so hard for lawyers to learn from mistakes, and five reasons why

Hard on its explanation of “good failures,” an article in the Harvard Bus. Rev., April 2011 at 54, summarizes why organizations struggle to analyze failure constructively and learn from it. One reason is “because examining our failures in depth is emotionally unpleasant and can chip away at our self-esteem.” From the general counsel on down, no one looks forward to criticism. Later, the authors add a second reason: “analyzing organizational failures requires inquiry and openness, patience, and a tolerance for causal ambiguity.” Might any of those attributes be in short supply among in-house lawyers?

On the cognitive side, we all favor confirming evidence and pooh-pooh facts that challenge our beliefs. We know why the deal went south so don’t upset our self-protecting construction of reality. Fourth, “We also tend to downplay our responsibility and place undue blame on external or situational factors when we fail, only to do the reverse when assessing the failures of others – a psychological trap known as the fundamental attribution error (See my post of May 14, 2006: fundamental attribution error; and July 10, 2007: fundamental attribution bias.). “I won the trial!” or “The judge was biased, the jury went squirrely on me, that e-mail surfaced too late…..” As a last reason we don’t benefit from errors, the authors fault most post-mortems for failing to dig down to second- and third-order reasons for the lapse. “Joe blew it when he didn’t respond on time,” instead of realizing that the service of process company had a wrong forwarding rule or the new office had not been trained in the proper procedures for complaint processing.

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