The Problem with Perfectionism

Messy paperI’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that you’re a bit of a perfectionist. I know, not a crazy perfectionist, but you’ve got the tendency, right?

It’s probably part of the reason you’re even in law school. If it wasn’t for perfectionism, and its flip side — fear of failure, you might not have spent all those hours studying for the LSAT or making sure you got a “pure A” on your bio lab. (Who knew there was a more pure type of A, but apparently some of my college classmates believed it.)

So, aiming for perfection has its place, but it can cause real problems in law school and, later, when you’re a lawyer.

What is Perfectionism?

Perfectionism isn’t just trying to do your best. That’s valuable in any endeavor, within reason. Perfectionism is a belief that if you just cross all the Ts and dot all the Is, if you just work a little bit harder than everybody else and just get a few more questions right on the exam, you’ll be okay. You’ll feel good about yourself, other people will like you, your parents will be happy.

Sadly, it doesn’t work that way.

Yes, getting an A in Civ Pro is exciting, but it can’t be the basis of your self-worth. (Trust me on this one. I got an A in Civ Pro, and it lead to a complete meltdown over whether I’d be able to keep doing so well the next semester.) You’ve got value, independent of your grades.

The Practical Problems with Perfectionism in the Legal Profession

On a more practical note, it’s actually counterproductive to aim for “perfect” as a law student. It’s tempting to think that if you just read one more case, or consult one more hornbook, or add one more section to your outline, you’ll be guaranteed to come up with the right answer.


Reflect on that for a second. There is no right answer.

Before you tell me I’ve lost my mind, hear me out.

Why There’s No Right Answer

I think a lot of people start law school with the mistaken believe that they’ll be taught “the law.” Certainly that’s what I thought. Seems pretty simple — someone comes into your office and tells you what happened to them, and you explain what law applies to their situation and what the outcome will be.

A + B = C.

The question you have to ask yourself, however, is why they’d pay $300+ an hour for your time if things were so simple.

I had a rude awakening in my first summer associate position, when it seemed like every single question I was asked to research was really hard. In many cases, I couldn’t find a clear answer, despite hours of effort. I felt like a total idiot, and was sure they’d fire me as soon as my incompetence became apparent.

What I eventually realized (when people seemed pretty content with the messy answers I was giving them) was that people don’t pay BigLaw rates for easy questions. If the answer is easy, someone just looks it up and everyone moves on with their lives. The only questions that percolate up to highly paid lawyers are the ones that don’t have a “right” answer. There might be better or worse answers, but there’s not a clear cut right or wrong answer.

What Does This Mean For Law School?

Law school, at its best, is training you to be a lawyer. If lawyers deal with hard, messy questions, law students have to deal with hard messy, questions. Sorry, that’s just the way it is.

So, unless you break the habit of trying to be perfect and trying to get exactly the “right” answer, you’re not going to be able do deal with the hard, messy questions. Ironically, it’s this ability to deal with ambiguity and come up with a “sort of right” answer that gets high grades in law school.

Being perfectly correct means you’ve ignored the real question. Do that, and your grades will be far from perfection!

Read On:

More law school advice, coming right up!

Return to Surviving Law School 101.

Have thoughts about perfectionism and its pitfalls? Leave them in the comments!

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  1. Hello!
    I am so glad i found this blog ! When I start law school in 3 weeks. Im going to make sure i tell my new friends about it!

  2. Oh and sorry about the lower case ‘i’ I’m typing from my smartphone : l

  3. Hae… am not an A student but want to purse law…this makes me nervous at times
    ..please help

  4. It’s my first year as a law student and I’d like to transfer to a different university. Will being a law student at this Univerity help with my application?

  5. It’s my first year as a law student and I’d like to transfer to a different university. Will being a law student at this Univerity help with my application? I live in South Africa

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