Lawyers vs perfection paralysis

Alex Herrity, 16 February 2021

Legal teams often strive for perfection - but how can this work against them? adidas’ senior manager for global legal solutions, Alex Herrity, talks ‘perfection paralysis’, and how to overcome it.

Hi 👋 Who are you?

I’m Alex, I’m the senior manager for Global Legal Solutions at adidas. My role covers the legal technology we implement; how we approach spend and knowledge management; and our communications strategy across our legal team. We’re a team of around 150 lawyers across 65+ countries. 

What is perfection paralysis? 

It’s the inability or reluctance to make a positive change, due to fear that the change doesn’t completely resolve the issue. Lawyers come up with great ideas all the time, but often they can be reluctant to put them into practice because of this nagging fear of what will happen if they’re not able to cover all bases and scenarios. 

That means you can end up with an absurd situation where a change that would improve things by 99 per cent is discarded for fear of the remaining 1 per cent. Rather than enjoy the benefits of the 99 percent and think of ways to handle the tiny exception, often lawyers lean towards ditching the whole idea in favour of slogging away in the 'tried and tested' method.

Why are lawyers perfectionists? 

Obviously, each lawyer is different, but the perfectionist label tends to be associated with the profession as a whole. Clearly perfectionist traits come with the nature of the work itself, but I think the type of training lawyers go through, and the supervision model that’s in place, can also contribute to it.

Understandably there’s a huge emphasis on having an eye for detail, grammar, punctuation, and so on - which is important for the day-to-day role, but the way those standards are often upheld by supervisors alongside a general requirement to stay within established procedural and stylistic lines can compound perfectionism.

I think it's fair to say most lawyers have experienced particularly harsh criticism for minor errors in style, grammar, or formatting, and have had pieces of work obliterated through redlining - but when you look at the changes the supervisor isn't really correcting the substantive legal content.

Things are improving in this area but this type of criticism is still a huge part of being a junior lawyer. Creating a working environment and professional culture that operates in this way doesn’t lend itself towards creativity and innovation. Instead, it entrenches a singular approach to work and causes lawyers to inherently resist or fear exploring alternative methods.

“If legal is caught up in perfection, instead of progress, then they can struggle to move at the same speed as the business - and legal becomes what every in-house lawyer hates: a blocker”

How does this impact their work negatively day-to-day? 

The perfectionist mindset doesn’t have much of a direct negative impact on a lawyer's day-to-day, and in many ways it can be seen as a strength that drives quality work. However, when you look at the wider skillset that you want to foster in a modern lawyer, this can start to become more of a problem. 

Business partners want to see greater collaboration and creativity from their lawyers; they want legal to be flexible and agile so that they can reimagine processes to fit business needs. The business wants to be empowered by its lawyers rather than tethered to them. Lawyers caught up in this perfectionist mindset often want to control everything, and they can be tempted to default to a ‘that’s not how we do it’ response.

It can become a huge step outside their comfort zone to start thinking differently and they can quickly discover that some of the core skills that would help them in this area are missing or underdeveloped.

How do you undo that natural bias towards perfection to focus on end goals for innovation in the adidas legal team? 

It’s not really about undoing this bias, but more about making people consciously aware of it. It’s important to act as the sounding board in conversations, to encourage discussions and get colleagues to question why they’ve lost confidence in their ideas. Legal leaders need to ask the right questions, such as:

  • What is it we’re trying to achieve?

  • What would success look like for us and for the user(s)?

  • If we could only improve one part of this project, how much impact would it make?

  • Could we split this into smaller tasks and organize in terms of priority or impact?

... And keep returning to the answers. We’re trying to move away from trying to land one big knockout punch and instead towards a more considered conversation that recognises that the most impactful and effective way to innovate is through an iterative process that involves lots of ideas, prototypes and redesigns along the way. 

I’d also encourage making the group as diverse as possible. You get a huge amount of overlap in thinking when you create homogeneous project groups. The hierarchical nature of law can sometimes lead people to think that only the most senior people can solve problems - in reality, there’s much more value in seeking broader perspectives. Bring relevant non-legal users into the group as soon as possible, and if that’s not possible for some reason then push for a diverse group within the legal community - different levels of experience, seniority, gender, background, and so on.

"We need to define what success looks like; if legal is always shooting towards this elusive ‘100%’ goal, it can lead to confusion and perfection paralysis"

Can perfection paralysis affect the wider business? How?

If legal is caught up in perfection, instead of progress, then the team can struggle to move at the same speed as the business, and there's a risk legal becomes what every in-house legal team hates to be known as: a blocker. In this situation the legal team can end up stifling progress because the business can’t move at its desired pace, business teams overlook legal so they can avoid delays and this opens up unnecessary risk. Once this disconnect has been established it can be hard to rebuild.

On a human level, perfection paralysis places an increased strain on the physical and mental health of lawyers. We know that lawyers typically resolve problems of capacity and increasing deadlines by working longer hours.

But the brute force approach clearly has its limits because eventually, especially in the increasingly fast-paced, tech-driven world, working harder instead of smarter is unsustainable. There are only so many hours lawyers can work before it starts to take its toll and burn them out. And inevitably the quality suffers, the added value of legal is diminished and deadlines are missed. 

How does the adidas legal team prevent perfection paralysis? 

There are a few steps I always recommend when we approach innovation or process changes within legal. We need to:

  • Be aware of the mindset we automatically adopt, so we can take steps to rectify it

  • Regularly take a step back and remind ourselves what we’re trying to achieve. This is useful for assessing the benefits of our project, and understanding that there’s value in the progress we’ve made

  • Make sure we define what success looks like; if legal is always shooting towards this elusive ‘100%’ goal, it can lead to confusion and perfection paralysis. Try to define success through quantifiable metrics and break the project down into smaller incremental stages that lead to the end goal

  • Visualize the task - get it on a whiteboard, a slide or even the dreaded sticky-notes. This can help everyone identify strengths and weaknesses in the components, and prioritize or build a plan in stages. This leads nicely to…

  • Prototyping. I frequently encourage teams to do this. Having something we can showcase to decision makers or business users can help build confidence

  • Work closely with design teams if you can. Why? Because the principles in design thinking involve getting ideas out on the table, creating a first proof, iterating, implementing, returning to the board with new ideas… There’s a lot more collaboration and introspection involved in the process, and this is exactly what we need to adopt

"Always try to first step back before you stop completely. Push yourself to see the value in small changes, plan it out, make a quick prototype and seek feedback. Then keep going"

What about technology - can it help? 

Technology can help with the process in terms of visualisation of ideas and prototyping. There are lots of different tools out there for building flows and diagrams that can help bring things to life. 

In terms of tech in the processes itself, I really like no-code platforms or easy to use legal tech that lets lawyers get their hands on it and play around with their concept. I find it can help draw out the creative side of lawyers.

I tend to find most ideas lawyers have these days involve some kind of tech element, usually based on a concept they’ve seen elsewhere in their day to day life, so legal tech is crucial to bring these ideas to life in a scalable and reliable way.

What can lawyers do to focus on progress, instead of perfection?

Always try to first step back before you stop completely. Ask yourself ‘is something better than nothing here?’ Push yourself to see the value in small changes that can be built upon, plan it out, make a quick prototype and seek feedback. Then keep going.

Thanks, Alex!

Topics: Legal operations

Download the guide