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Contradictory messages to lawyers about making mistakes

An article in the NY Times, Nov. 24, 2007 at C5, made some disturbing points about out attitudes toward our own mistakes. Here’s how I applied the observations to law departments.

Nearly all lawyers have somewhere along the educational line been told they are smart. People who view themselves as smart, according to research described in the article, and who “believe that intelligence is fixed and cannot change tend to avoid taking chances that may lead to errors.” If true, that finding explains some of the risk aversion common to lawyers (See my post of June 30, 2007 about risk attitudes among lawyers and four references cited.).

By contrast, people who are praised not for their brains but for their effort, for how hard they struggle and how much they learn from their mistakes, are game to take on more challenging tasks. If trying hard gets rewarded more than shining intellectually, the effortful people take more risks. Unfortunately, where intellectual elitism rules, as in big-firm law, no one boast about a hard slog and slips along the way.

Our tolerance for our own mistakes grows more brittle as we age. “As we get older, many of us invest a great deal in being right. When things go wrong, as they inevitably do, we focus on flagellating ourselves, blaming someone else or covering it up.” Perhaps senior lawyers fall prey to this syndrome.

One choice for lawyers who are paranoid about blunders is to give answers that start with “It depends.” If an in-house lawyer avoids making a call, the lawyer can’t be proved wrong in the event. The authors claim that most of us with experience have closed minds: “What we do not want to do, most of the time, is learn from the experience.”

My take away, although I may be mistaken, is that if the in-house lawyer already knows the answer to a situation, the lawyer may not be growing professionally, thinking much, or trying something that might be better. The safe path that avoids error also avoids learning. Too much focus on outcome rather than on process stifles intellectual growth.

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