Room for improvement: why you can’t always be Mr (or Ms) Perfect

“We think you’re a bit of a perfectionist,” says the partner. The interviewee smiles at what he takes to be a compliment. The partner continues: “but we’re not sure you’ll ever be able to let things go at 95% or 90% of your capability. Do you understand that in law you sometimes have to accept that there are other calls on your time and that you simply cannot get everything right?”

Sound familiar? I’m sure that to many people, it does. When it happened to me, I felt it was a pretty good assessment of me from a person who’d known me for less than half an hour.

The partner is, of course, right about law not being the place for people who are unable to accept anything other than perfection. That’s not to say that you’ll succeed if you stop caring about standards, or that the secret to training contract success is increasing the number of spelling errors in your application forms. What is certainly the case, though, is that firms expect their trainees not to be perfect.

It’s difficult to comprehend the concept of firms understanding this on an assessment day or when filling out an application form, because it feels as though even the slightest error will be costly. In actual fact, the firms are likely – certainly at assessment centres – to overlook minor imperfections and be realistic, choosing to focus on a candidate’s overall performance.

Having been warned of the perils of perfectionism and been asked for examples of knowingly submitting a less-than-flawless piece of work in an interview, the issue arose again on some recent work experience. There, the advice was from an associate who was talking me through a piece of work I’d done in dummy at the same time that she was doing the real thing. I realised quite early on in our read-through that I might have missed a few things, and said that I was disappointed but resolved to catch them next time. The associate said that the phrase “I’ll make sure I get that right next time” is the junior lawyer’s best friend. She told me that people make mistakes with work all the time, and that people often don’t mind the first time it happens. If you fail to correct the mistake, that’s when people start to get a bit miffed.

It can go too far, though. I was once told a story of someone who recruited a new office junior. The new junior was enthusiastic  but every now and again, mistakes would crop up. The errors would be pointed out, but time and again the same thing would happen. Eventually, the boss approached the junior and asked if they were aware of the mistakes that were being made. The reply came, “Yes, but I get most of it right, don’t I? At Uni, 60% was enough for me to get a 2:1. If I get 60% of my work right, I’m happy.”

Firms being understanding of mistakes stands to reason – they know they’re hiring people who are new to the industry, untrained and (despite sometimes feeling like robots) human. Couple those characteristics with the amount you’ll be learning and the high-level of complexity of some of the work that will come your way, and you have a recipe for the occasional minor error. The important thing is to take criticism well, chalk errors up to experience and learn quickly – those are the keys to success in whatever you do. That’s been true in every job I’ve done until now, and everything I’ve seen and been told suggests it will be just as true in the law.

Perfectionism, then, appears to still be a noble aim, and one that is not wholly discouraged by firms. However, it seems realism must sit alongside it in order for it to bring success.

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About Ashley Connick
Ashley Connick is a trainee solicitor at an international law firm. For a full profile, please visit the "About the Author" section of the blog.

10 Responses to Room for improvement: why you can’t always be Mr (or Ms) Perfect

  1. Law Think says:

    Very true, “perfection is the enemy of the good”

  2. Miriam Said says:

    This is an awesome post Ashley.

    There is a very sage and wise message here for everyone. Learn from your mistakes and demonstrate that you have done so by correcting those mistakes.

    This applies, not only to work, but also to events in other areas of your life.

    Once again, Ashley is brilliant.

  3. A reason why being perfectionist, is not desirable in a law business, is that it is often uncommercial. The overall objective is to stay within budget. If you are being paid to give a quick initial view for an hour of your time, the last thing you need is a trainee or paralegal who will go to town and do a rolls royce job taking hours over it. So, in many contexts to be perfectionist is to be uncommercial.
    However, mistakes that take the form of slap dash work are unforgivable if there is a tendency to make the same kind of mistakes again and again. It just comes across as careless, lack of attention to detail and you soon get a reputation for being unreliable. So, in my view firms are not inviting poor quality and low standards if they say they don’t want perfectionists….

  4. I wrote my previous comment in a hurry and wanted to clarify that in my view firms don’t want perfectionists because perfectionism is incompatible with being commercial and pragmatic. They don’t want to take on people who may fuss over insignificant points which do not matter in the grand scheme of things. Points which a more experienced lawyer would be able to resolve very quickly. Taking too much time perfecting unnecessary details makes someone slow and unproductive. However, that does not mean that firms are saying they are relaxed about people making mistakes. You can be a perfectionist and yet make your fair share of mistakes – the sort of mistakes you mention in your blog, which are part and parcel of learning. In my experience perfectionists tend to overcomplicate issues, and could be in danger of overlooking the bigger picture as they have a tendency to get stuck on minute details. That’s the picture that comes to mind whenever someone describes themselves as a perfectionist in a job interview.

  5. US Associate says:

    Firms do want perfectionists, no matter what they say. Because the only people who are able to stick with the mind-numbing tedium of the work and the tooth-grinding awfulness of clients for more than a handful of years are – in my long, hated experience – borderline obsessive compulsive, happy to re

  6. US Associate says:

    …repeat the same monotonous hair-rending tasks over and over again, at midnight. To be able to cope with all that, and the crushing slow-burning dullness of your colleagues, requires people addicted to perfection. Normal, socialised humans need not apply.

  7. Lawyer says:

    Very well said. It does wonders to be a perfectionist, but there are just some instances that you can’t always be right. And I love the part where you said, “That’s not to say that you’ll succeed if you stop caring about standards, or that the secret to training contract success is increasing the number of spelling errors in your application forms.” This is so true. We still have to set some standards and try to follow through it. If in any case, we make mistakes, we should charge it to experience and do out best to improve on these issues until at some point–you’re going to realise that you have been doing it right already.

  8. site says:

    I love your wordpress web template, where did you get a hold of it?

    • Hi,

      It’s just a standard template on wordpress.com – it’s called Enterprise – and I just made the header the same colour as the background, hence it looking slightly different to the standard version.

      Thank you so much for the kind comment.

      All the best,

      Ash

  9. Perfectionism this word is very broad and i can’t believe that everyone came under meaning of completely

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