Advice From a Recovering Perfectionist: 5 Mindfulness Tips For Excellent Lawyering


We are pleased to welcome Judi Cohen to the blog today. Judi practiced and taught law for 25 years before meditative-zen-garden-2-1416500-mfounding Warrior One LLC, which offers Essential Mindfulness for Lawyers® trainings and mindfulness-based executive coaching. She shares with us five tips for how lawyers can practice mindfulness in their daily lives – something we know many people are trying to do more of! Welcome, Judi!

I’m a recovering perfectionist. There was a time when every piece of work I did had to be perfect. I was the one burning the midnight oil on draft #12 when draft #3 had been great. I couldn’t leave my desk until my work was complete, papers organized, and to-do list ready for morning. This sometimes meant working until morning. I thought it was perfect. Turns out, it was not.

Voltaire said the perfect is the enemy of the good. He was right. I was grasping for something that doesn’t exist. Mindfulness taught me to aim for excellence instead of perfection. What a relief. Excellence is a much better practice.

Perfectionists are a dime a dozen in our profession. The law probably attracts us but there’s training, too. From our first year of law school, everything we produce has to be absolutely right. The slightest misstep is grounds for ridicule, and sometimes for losing your job.

But there’s a difference between perfectionism and excellence. Perfectionism speaks to a certain … paranoia. Excellence is aspirational.

Here are five signs of perfectionism that can hold you back, and five mindfulness tips for excellence:

Sign #1: You do extremely good work but rarely feel you’ve done enough.

Tip: Perfectionists are afraid that if we let up, someone will see we’re not perfect. Here’s one remedy: recall something you did well but not perfectly. It could be that excellent settlement following a messy mediation. Or a surprise win after a muddled argument. Or maybe it’s just last night’s delicious meal…that you thought you overcooked.

See the theme? You’re doing an excellent job – and focusing on what’s wrong. Focus on what’s right. According to contemplative neuroscience, as you do this repeatedly you’re re-wiring your brain. Eventually your new neural pathways, pointing towards excellence, will become your default, and that fear of imperfection will subside.

Sign #2: You procrastinate. It’s hard to get started, hard to stop worrying about what could go wrong, and easy to second-guess yourself.

Tip: To jump-start things, clear your mind and set aspirational but realistic goals. Next, break things down into tasks. Then calendar each task like you would an appearance. Finally, silence your phone and close your browsers. Creating focused time for small, manageable tasks makes starting easier, and finishing those tasks motivates you for the next ones.

Then use a mindfulness practice to address worrying. When you start to worry, take a full minute to bring your awareness to your body. Locate the tightness or agitation that worry inevitably creates. Notice how, just by paying attention, the body relaxes. As that happens, the worry subsides as well, making space in the mind for planning and execution.

Now for the second-guessing. This is our inner critic, who often has a special place in our heart. Before you invite her to rethink an excellent draft for the 10th time, take 10 minutes to read over Draft #9. Then say to yourself, “Good job!,” pump your fist, even stand up and dance. As you acknowledge your own excellence over and over, you’re quieting your inner critic. You may still write Draft #10 to make it more excellent, but not because #9 is imperfect.

Sign #3: You’re critical of others, even though you say it nicely.

Tip: Perfectionists expect everyone to live up to our own impossible standards. So the next time you’re about to criticize someone’s mistake, try this one-minute practice instead.

First, take a breath, seeing the person with a fresh perspective. Is he young? Old? Happy? Unhappy? Married, partnered, single? A parent, a sibling, someone’s child?

Then ask yourself if he woke up this morning and said, “Today, I’ll do a terrible job.” If not, he may not be as driven as you are, but he’s human (like you).

Now breathing in, imagine the conditions that led to his mistake: the missed bus, his confusion, or maybe just one too many drinks last night. You’ve been there. Then breathing out, give him the benefit of the doubt that if he could do better today, he would.

Last, wish him well.

His performance won’t be any different – that’s his issue. But your feelings will. You’ll have removed the frustration and anger, and might even see some potential. And by the way, this is another re-wiring exercise. So don’t be shocked if you unwittingly smile at this person the very next time your paths cross. And he smiles back.

Sign #4: You take things personally. Even reading that sentence is irritating.

Tip: Perfectionists have heard that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, we just don’t think it applies to us. We live in a “mistake=failure” mindset, and even credit it for our success.

As a second year associate I was sent to my first trial. The partner dismissed my concerns about a statute problem so I didn’t brief it. After my opening statement my opponent moved for a nonsuit. Twenty-seven years later I can still remember the “mistake=failure” fear that overcame me, shutting me down. As I stood there in shock, the motion was granted.

Today I would ask the judge to let me brief the issue and move forward with trial. But first I would stop, breathe, and turn towards the fear. All emotions have a lifespan: they gather force, stabilize, and subside. I would wait until the fear stabilized, at least. And then I would speak.

If you try this practice there will be a moment of silence. And although silence can feel strange, even a moment or two builds stability and resilience. Stability, to understand that what doesn’t kill you really does make you stronger. And resilience, to tolerate your mistakes, emotions and imperfections.

Sign #5: You’re happy when someone else fails.

Tip: This is a tough one. Who wants to admit to that? But the truth is, we perfectionists see someone else’s loss and think, “Whew, at least it wasn’t me.”

Excellence is different. It’s about compassion, Plato’s advice to “be kind, for everyone you know is fighting a hard battle.”

The next time you see someone fail, especially if the “win” is yours, remember that it could be you who lost. (Deep breath.) Then ask, “How can I reach out? How do I let her know that my celebration isn’t at her expense?” As you develop compassion, you’re admitting your own imperfection and cultivating another essential element of excellence.

I could say I have mastered this, but truthfully this article is draft #12. My editor wanted it last week, but last week it was only draft #3. And those subsequent nine drafts were great, but…old habits die hard. As Zen master Suzuki Roshi once said, “We’re all perfect, and we could use a little improvement.” Maybe imperfection is the improvement. In fact, maybe “im-perfectionism” is an element of excellence.

Judi Cohen is the founder of Warrior One LLC, which offers Essential Mindfulness for Lawyers® trainings and mindfulness-based executive coaching. She also teaches Essential Mindfulness for Lawyers at Golden Gate University School of Law. Judi can be reached at

Topics:  Law Practice Management, Training, Young Lawyers

Published In: Professional Practice Updates

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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