Being successful is important to all of us in one way or another, but the ability to maintain success is more difficult to achieve. The legal profession is a demanding one, and as Gail J. Cummings, JD, MSS, LCSW, discussed at the Women in Profession Committee meeting on Jan. 26 that “we as lawyers are perfectionists by nature, we self select for law school and this profession.” In our profession,
attention-to-detail and time pressure is the norm, but one’s ability to adjust under these pressures is what is most important.

Perfectionism is demanded of the practicing lawyer, but this puts us in a box, because perfectionism is an unattainable standard. The old adage rings true, to gain experience in general, one must have a mix of both good and bad experiences, in order to become more experienced and a better attorney. In other words, mistakes will be inevitable.

Cummings puts it differently, “We must face imperfection in order to grow.” This does not mean lowering standards, but really means moving forward and not lamenting about mistakes Cummings began this thought-provoking program explaining to the audience that her passion for people, not the law, ultimately drives her. After a 15-year legal career, Cummings chose to go back to school to become a psychotherapist. She recounted a story of facing rejection by the dean of admissions at Bryn Mawr College during her interview there for admission into the psychology program. She spoke of how she turned the interview around, because it was going badly, to focus on her father, who was a hero who saved lives in Poland. By doing so, she made herself more relatable to the dean, and the dean changed her perspective as a result. Cummings explained that she needed to eschew the perfect ideal in the interview. It came down to adjusting her expectations and her thought process to negotiate a favorable outcome.

The program continued exploring different characteristics of maintaining success: flexibility, risk taking, passion and grit. Cummings illustrated, through multiple examples and stories, her challenges and challenges of attorneys she has counseled. She quoted Angela Duckworth who said, “The gritty individual stays the course.” Gritty individuals can overcome obstacles and therefore become more confident. Gritty individuals focus on the long-term goal. Cummings recounted examples of clients she had counseled who had ideals of practicing one area of law and that one area only. Being flexible and able to change an ideal was important. New attorneys may have one ideal in terms of area of practice, but to be successful they need to consider different opportunities. Success depends on your ability to move out of your comfort zone. Cummings talked about her experience hiking up a glacier. Facing her fear enabled her to take a risk and climbing up that glacier produced a unique confidence.

Maureen M. Farrell ([email protected]), principal of the Law Offices of Maureen M. Farrell, is an associate
editor of the Philadelphia Bar Reporter.

This article originally appeared in Philadelphia Bar Reporter, March 2016.