Showing Vulnerability as a Lawyer: One Mistake at a Time

Recently “Zoom Cat-lawyer” revealed a lot about the legal profession. Its seriousness. Its humour (or lack thereof). Its low tolerance for mistakes.

In the Zoom call, the lawyer was unable to quickly remove the filter by himself. The judge and opposing counsel seemed to have little patience for his technological incompetence.

In “Think Again”, Professor Adam Grant writes “Sharing our imperfections can be risky if we haven’t yet established our competence. In studies, lawyers and teachers searching for jobs, expressing themselves authentically increased the odds of getting job offers if they were rated in the 90th percentile or above for competence, but backfired if they were less competent… Experiments show that people who haven’t yet proven their competence are respected less if they admit their weaknesses…They seem insecure”.

The legal professions’ attitude towards vulnerability is problematic. Adam Grant points out that when we see people getting punished for failures or mistakes, we worry about proving our competence and protecting our career. We learn to engage in behaviour, like biting our tongues, censoring ourselves, or arbitrarily conforming to authority. But rethinking is more likely to happen in a culture, where growth is the core value and rethinking and questioning is routine (“a learning culture”).

Adam Grant states that a learning culture is ideal. “In a learning culture, where growth is the core value and rethinking cycles are routine… the norm is for people to know what they don’t know, doubt their existing practices, and stay curious about new routines to try out. Evidence shows that in learning cultures, organizations innovate more and make fewer mistakes”. Instead mistakes are seen as opportunities to learn.

The platform Legal Lookbacks is working to change the culture around mistakes in the legal industry. Claiming on its website “Let’s change the culture of unhelpful perfectionism in the legal industry, while becoming better lawyers too – one mistake at a time.” Embracing our vulnerabilities may help move to the dial towards a better legal culture. But it will take many lawyers publicly coming forward to change the tide.

(Views are my own and do not represent the views of any organization. I have no association with Legal Lookbacks.)




  1. Thanks Heather, I love this site and will show it to my students. One unfortunate consequence of the culture of perfectionism is cover-ups. Lawyers think that perfection is the standard, and so when we fall below it we sometimes try to cover up the goof-ups …. which is often the source of much bigger problems.