The golden patina of accuracy and imperviousness

February 7, 2011 at 3:05 pm | Posted in read this, running, the firm | 5 Comments
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I made a mistake at work last week. Not a proofing error, but a process error. A mistake in judgment. I didn’t do anything illegal, nor did I lose the client any money, and it was ultimately corrected. I have spoken with both the senior associate and the partner involved, owned up to my error, and assured them it would be a profound learning experience. The associate told me, “No harm, no foul.”

Nevertheless, I have been in a deep, deep funk since then. I dread being in the office, and my stomach is in knots when I’m there. I literally cannot eat. I feel as if I let down two people whose opinions I value, with whom I want to continue working. I know, I know: what matters is how I handle the mistake, what I learn from it, that I pick myself up. Outwardly, I’m trying to do that. Inwardly, however, I’m still cringing. I want to hide under my desk. Better yet, I want to stay in bed.

Friends have helpfully shared their work blunders: sending a prospective off to the printers with an error, disclosing too much information in a negotiation. My law school friends have, as usual, been particularly supportive. One told me of a tongue-lashing she was given by the general counsel of a Fortune 500 company. Another of sending documents to the wrong client. The most helpful piece of wisdom was provided by my friend Jill, who pointed me to this blog post. I have been trying to figure out why I remain so depressed, and this piece distills it perfectly. For inherent pleasers, such as I am, law school is awesome. You learn things, you are tested on them, and then you are given feedback in the form of a letter grade. If you do well in law school, as I did, these grades are the signs of approval that we pleaser-types so crave. In a law firm, you may be given feedback twice a year in your review. Otherwise, you spend your long days fielding assignments and completing them with absolutely no idea if you are doing the right thing or, more important for someone like me, doing a good job. I realized that I have spent the majority of my days at the firm feeling like I am on the brink of disaster — that I’m about to screw something up. In some very small way, it was a relief that I finally did make a major mistake, one that I and the people I work for had to acknowledge.

Dear readers, I do not write this for praise — I swear! But just to articulate the anxiety that perhaps so many of us are afraid to voice. As my friend Monique wrote me, “My fellow associates at work rarely admit to being anything less than perfect, so I often feel very alone, and very much like I missed the day in law school when they dipped students in the golden patina of accuracy and imperviousness.”

What is the most difficult thing for me is that I disappointed someone I respect and generally enjoy working for. Most likely, this partner has made mistakes and hopefully will give me a second chance. But what just gnaws at me is that I won’t get that chance and that, really, I’m not very good at what I do (which snowballs into all the reasons why not: I’m not detail oriented? I have no attention span? I rush things so that I can get home to my children?)

I don’t know how to get out of this funk. I did go to the office gym for the first time since I joined almost four weeks ago and ran the fastest three miles I have in months (which admittedly isn’t saying much). Has this happened to you? Were you depressed? How did you get your groove back?


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  1. Kathryn,
    Thank you for this post (and not just because you quoted me). This makes me feel a lot less ridiculous about all the nights I have crawled home, my mind full of the latest embarrasing work gaffe. I will say that the last two years, though soul-crushing, have given me great sympathy for my fellow associates. Just today, I was telling a junior associate about our e-mail exchange to make him feel better after he sent a document to the client with an error in it.

  2. I so hear you! I am a foreign lawyer in the U.S., working as a senior paralegal doing international corporate and tax law (basically: I do the same work with the same responsibility as an associate, just less hours for less pay …). I made a big mistake by not asking the right questions to an office in another country and by taking for granted what the guys overseas were telling me. Well, big embarrassing mistake happened, sleepless nights, thoughts of me being stupid for the same reasons as you above. My boss was nice to me about it, but I still felt really bad about the error for quite some time, I was depressed and it took some time to get over it. And I have done this job for 10 years, and I think I am pretty good at it. But: shit happens. We work a lot, a lot of stuff crosses our desks, some of it totally weird, so – it happens. I am trying to put it into perspective: I have a friend who is a doctor, and he does organ transplants; when he makes a mistake, someone can die. When you or I make a mistake, yes, it’s expensive and we can loose our job, but hey! I hope things are looking up for you. I also thank you for your blog, as it tells me that I am not alone – the successful people in my firm are either guys or women with no family (or a live-in nanny). It’s always the balancing act between your job and your kids, between blackberry and gym, and all the other stuff that comes with it. But to be honest: I would not want it any other way (I would love to work 4 days a week though). Cheers, Alexandra

  3. Been there. Done that. And have felt the mind-boggling guilt and anxiety, and the inability to let go. You simply have to put one foot in front of the other for several days until it starts to blur into the past… and you realize that what feels like a scarlet letter is actually just this tiny paper cut that no one else notices. Hang in there. It WILL pass… I promise!

  4. Could not agree more with CTF. Catching the mistake is what matters. The feelings will pass and you’ll be a better lawyer for it. And maybe one day you’ll have a funny story to tell the summer associates. Hang in there!

  5. I used to work in investor relations and pretty much, my job was to get yelled at by either the CEO, president, head counsel, or the investors. Most of what I took the heat for wasn’t my fault, but screwing up is inevitable. NO ONE is perfect. Everyone does it. Sounds like you handled it with more grace than most, and that is truly what counts. What helped me is that due to my position I saw (and heard) about people much more senior to me making REALLY big mistakes that did cost the company millions of dollars.

    If you still can’t make yourself feel better, just think about Kenneth Lay. You ain’t got nothin’ on that guy. And remember that everyone is just faking it and feeling like a fraud at work.


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