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Beware ‘tyranny of perfectionism’ in the law

17 May 2022 / law society Print

Beware the tyranny of perfectionism in the law

The law attracts high-achieving types who want to do well in their careers, a Law Society Psychological Service ‘Shrink Me’ talk entitled ‘Psychology of a Law Firm’ heard yesterday (16 May).

However, there are pitfalls for these personality types as they start their careers.

“You are not in competition with everybody else in the firm,” said Kate Honan (trainee programme co-ordinator with McCann FitzGerald), adding that the steep learning curve in a traineeship can be difficult for high-achievers.

Anyone who has achieved a legal traineeship has worked extremely hard, and firms are now vying for the top talent.

However, trainees in this highly competitive environment should not be afraid to ask questions if they feel unsure.

Making mistakes is how we learn and grow, and trainees are not expected to be perfect, Honan added, warning against the debilitating “tyranny of perfectionism”.

“I would encourage people to really try and leave that at the door and not to be looking at what everybody else is doing.

“Take confidence in the fact that you've got this far,” she advised, since law firms are making a serious investment in training their junior staff, and want happy and productive employees.

Do your very best, she continued, but beware of hyper-perfectionism.


Take feedback on the chin and learn from it, and improve the next time, she advised.

Lawyer and executive coach Katie Da Gama agreed that, while ambition is natural in this field, there is still a balance to be struck between perfectionism and high standards. 

“This is a profession of very high achievers, who set themselves very high bars in all that they do,” she said.

“Now, more than ever, the demand [from clients] is huge,” said Kate Honan, with many people leaving the profession because of such demands.

But trainees should always look for opportunities to learn, as well as asking for support if they need it, she suggested.

Simon O’Doherty (trainee talent aquisition and development manager at A&L Goodbody) said that often there can be fear of even asking a question, as if that will somehow leave one exposed.

“Asking for help is certainly not a sign of weakness,” he said.

“Embrace it,” he advised.

“There is a certain amount of onus on you, yourself, to take responsibility for that,” he said.


Remote working during the pandemic had also led to increased isolation, O’Doherty pointed out, to the detriment of the daily ‘micro connections’ available in the workplace.

Many people seem to be happy to be back in the office, at least some of the time, and to benefit from the social connections available, Kate Honan said. 

Those who began their legal career in a virtual environment were at somewhat of a loss, in not having a ‘bank of relationships’ to draw upon, the webinar heard. 

Real-life connections with other people are energising and should not be discounted as a source of support, Honan said.

Trainees should tap into all available supports If they needed them, the speakers agreed, whether from HR departments, or from the Law Society.

It is also very good practice to keep up outside interests, that webinar heard.

This may simply be a matter of communicating the fact that one trains for a team or sings in a choir on a particular night of the week.

While attendance may not always be possible, junior lawyers should aim as far as possible to keep up their outside interests.

Outside identity

Lots of people in this career are very passionate about the law, but it is important to have an identity, friendships, and interests outside of it, too.

O’Doherty added that it is important to be self-aware about what one needs to learn and get on.

This can mean getting comfortable with one's own voice, and being able to both verbalise and reflect, he said.

Doing this is a valuable investment in one's own career, he added.

Kate Honan said that young lawyers are no longer willing to make huge personal sacrifices – they want to enjoy good quality work, but also be fulfilled in other areas of their lives.

“Take some extra time to try to tease through your own experience, your own feelings,” he suggested. 

Doing this is a valuable investment in one's own career, he added.

Kate Honan said that young lawyers are no longer willing to make huge personal sacrifices –they want to enjoy good quality work but also be fulfilled in other areas of their life.


As a trainee this is tricky, because it is a busy and demanding time, and opportunities to learn can come at short notice.

Most firms no longer encourage a culture of presenteeism for the sake of it, she observed.

Often, it’s a matter of asking clearly: “Do you need me for anything else this evening, or can I log off?”

Just be clear and ask the question, Honan advised, instead of walking out the door not knowing whether it's permitted or not.

Simple communication

“Simple communication can't be overestimated in these circumstances,” she said.

Trainees are entitled to have a life outside of work, she commented, but must remain flexible and agile about work demands.

Sometimes, work will be too busy for outside interests, unfortunately, but that shouldn't be a prolonged occurrence, she said.

Honan said that she was aware of excellent feedback on Law Society Psychological Services, which are there for trainees to help coach them through difficult situations.

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