Reevaluating Failure: How Failing Drives Growth in Learning, Business, and Even the Law

By Litera on December 3, 2019

In the practice of law, failure in the traditional sense brings about fear. Many of our outcomes are directly measured as wins or losses—and no client wants to lose. As a result, lawyers are particularly averse to failure.

But within both the business and the practice of law, we’re sure to fail at times. The good news is that if we can transform our beliefs about it, failure can offer us valuable information about what works and what doesn’t.

How Failure Contributes to Growth

Other industries are more tolerant of the risk of failure and may even encourage it. Failure is a major design component in artificial intelligence, tech development, and entrepreneurship. An article in the New York Times described three types of failure: preventable, complex, and intelligent. While preventable failures can (and likely should) be avoided, complex failures arise from “a combination of internal and external factors … [when] there’s enough volatility or complexity in the environment that things just happen.” These circumstances—common in the medical field and, likely, in the practice of law—create failures that can teach us critical lessons if we take the time to examine them and plan out corrections such as improved processes or enhanced communications.

Most importantly, the article notes, “intelligent failure occurs when we’re working in areas in which we don’t have expertise or experience, or in areas that are uncharted in a broad, industrywide sense.” Here, it’s beneficial to fail quickly and even visibly, so that others learn what doesn’t work.

With artificial intelligence, and specifically machine learning, the goal is to train the system as quickly as possible. If it’s always right, it never learns where the “edges” of a task or a definition are. To this end, “failing fast is a really good thing in machine learning,” as machines don’t lose motivation or get discouraged by failure. Similarly, many new businesses find that, rather than waiting to develop a perfect product, the fastest and most efficient way to get off the ground is to launch a minimum viable product early and improve it over time. The overarching idea is to “fail fast and fail forward.”

But does this approach to failure work in the law?

Dealing With Failure in the Practice of Law

There are good reasons why lawyers and the entire legal industry are intolerant of risk and failure. It isn’t fair to our clients—or ethical—to plan to fail nine times so we can learn how to succeed for the tenth client.

But the simple fact, given the basic zero-sum dichotomies we usually face, is that we will sometimes fail in both the practice and the business of law: “we either win or lose the motion; we either win or lose the trial; we either win or lose on appeal; we snag or don’t snag the prospective client; we keep or lose the existing client.” Those who claim not to fail either aren’t trying or aren’t accurately reporting their outcomes.

Our attitudes about these inevitable failures determine how well we learn from them. Importantly, an aversion to failure can directly hamper one necessary component for a growing legal practice: business development. Rainmakers who successfully expand their clientele have long embraced failure and rejection. After all, “business development is not about batting 1,000[;] there are no rainmakers who haven’t faced rejection along the way. Rejection may be painful, but it is a necessary step to success.”

If you’ve made a mistake—failed, to put it bluntly—but you can learn a lesson from that experience, or find a new way to grow your business, or use it to bring yourself one step closer to future success, you have the ability to turn that failure into a victory. Contact us to find out how we can help you succeed with your documents, transactions, and more.

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