Oh, the Places You Will Fail! A Letter From Failure Camp

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failure camp

NASHVILLE — It’s tough to admit failure. It’s easier to pretend it didn’t happen, to walk away, to blame something or someone else. It’s tougher to own that failure — to dig into what didn’t work and learn from it, whether by choosing a different career path or changing a business model or a prototype.

Entrepreneurs are talking a lot about the importance of re-positioning failure as feedback or opportunity these days, but during this year’s Summit on Law and Innovation by Vanderbilt Law’s Program on Law + Innovation, Cat Moon and Larry Bridgesmith brought the concept to bear directly on lawyers and legal innovators. They called it Failure Camp.

It’s a message we as lawyers need to hear, for a number of reasons. First, in general, we are not naturally good at learning from our mistakes. We tend to be smart, high-achieving people for whom things have often come easily and who want to be right. We’re trained to be skeptical and to be the quickest at identifying problems. But setbacks are part of life (and definitely part of change) and accepting and learning from failure allows us to be resilient rather than defeated.

“Failure is a matter of perspective,” said Karen Clanton, Communications Director at Perkins Coie, in her prepared remarks at the conference. “It’s just one lens in which to see a situation.”

Second, we as lawyers need to be willing to learn from failure in order to evolve in times of change, both as individuals and as a profession. Participants at the conference shared their stories of “failure,” including recognizing that a job they thought was their dream job (or that others would see as a dream job) was no longer where they wanted to be and deciding to leave the money and identity behind. Others were laid off in the recession or from political appointments and had to reinvent themselves.

Failure is a matter of perspective… it’s just one lens in which to see a situation.

We also talked about impostor syndrome, perfectionism, anxiety, and personal growth. Many of us have such stories, but there was something freeing about actually sharing them and hearing the common denominators.

Defense attorney Megan Zavieh, in recounting the turning point (in retrospect) after a string of personal and professional challenges, said, “I finally got comfortable being uncomfortable.” She also assured us, “In the middle of the quagmire of failure, have a little faith that it might be taking you somewhere you can’t even see.”

Beyond personal growth, redefining failure as opportunity is necessary for the legal profession as a whole. We see law firms, solo practitioners, and other service providers struggling to innovate, but feel hampered by uncertainty, lack of information, anxiety, and fear of failure. Changes are coming to the legal profession, including continually evolving technology, automation, market pressures, and millennial lawyers — who, by the way, are much more willing to walk away from the “dream job” they hate.

During times of seismic change such as is happening in the legal profession now, it’s the entire profession and its participants — law firms, corporate legal departments, alternative legal service providers, legal technicians and entrepreneurs, law schools, and yes, clients — that need to adapt to the change that is happening all around them. Change is hard, of course, but law firms, for example, can facilitate it by taking a hard look at what they tie to compensation and how they make space for innovation. Sticking with the proven ways of doing things is a choice, too, and it may not be the best one.

Access to justice fits here, too. In other words, we need to find ways of providing legal services more cheaply, efficiently, and with economies of scale that allow legal practitioners to serve the approximately 85% of Americans for whom affording a lawyer is prohibitively expensive. Doing so necessitates innovation and iteration, both in developing and using changing legal technologies and in ways of organizing law firms and paying lawyers.

In a time that careers aren’t linear, and the legal industry is changing rapidly, it is crucial that we begin to design for failure. In other words, the best path forward is to be willing to try things and accepting that some of them won’t work. Let’s make that acceptable within our law firms, our companies, and ourselves.

To restate the tired inspirational phrase: What would you do if it were okay to fail?