When I was a first-year law student, my Constitutional Law professor announced that he originally wanted to be a trial lawyer, but after losing his first ten trials, he decided he better teach law than practice it. My initial reaction was that maybe he shouldn’t have shared that, but now I understand that he was simply making lemonade out of lemons.
Due to the fact that I myself have practiced law for decades, I have had some time to think about how lawyers deal with loss. What I’ve learned is that it’s important to keep the right frame of mind so you can figure out how to turn “losing” into “winning.” Here’s how to hone that particular skill:
First, look for a learning lesson. One thing that should always happen after a loss is some good old fashion introspection. The Law of Conflict dictates that when we lose, we learn something about ourselves. In other words, it’s ok to lose a case, but the key is to avoid doing it again (and again!) So evaluate the reasons why you lost. Maybe, for instance, you chose poorly when you accepted the case. Are you not screening your clients properly? Perhaps your ego was bigger than your eloquence. Correct what you can and move on.
Don’t eat the leftovers. If a client comes in the door who has been fired by a previous attorney, or has fired his last attorney, I strongly suggest you listen politely and then say, “No thanks!” I was sued once, and the plaintiff fired his attorney. The next attorney charged double the fee he thought it would cost to take his case. That attorney ended up losing and later told me he had no idea what he was getting into.
Trust your intuition. As you reflect on why you lost, consider whether you are doing things your inner voice tells you are wrong because you hope to win a big fee? Trust me, there are more important things in life than making money. Through my decades of practicing law, I learned if it didn’t smell right, I better withdraw. That served me very well.
Don’t take it personally. Many lawyers feel guilty when they lose. Many feel absolutely brilliant when they win. However, when we make our job strictly about winning, we suffer. When we make the job about doing the best you can, you will always be a winner.
Realize that losing may be a gift in disguise. If losing becomes your new normal (or it stresses you out too much), then maybe getting into a less stressful area of the practice of law might be wise. Transactional work, estate planning, corporate law, taxation, or real estate are fruitful and don’t involve winning or losing. In other words, sometimes we are just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Consider whether you are in the right area of law and the right practice. Sometimes losing repeatedly can help you make important changes in your life.
About the Author
James Gray Robinson, Esq. was a third-generation trial attorney, specializing in family law, for 27 years in his native North Carolina up until 2004. Since then he has become an individual and business consultant who works with a wide range of people, professional organizations, and leading corporations. Robinson’s mission is for all people to have fulfilling, peaceful career experiences and work environments. At the age of 64, Gray passed the Oregon bar exam and is again a licensed attorney.