Making mistakes is the way to stop making mistakes

When newly minted Dutch lawyers work in English, there is a tension between two opposing factors. On the one hand, making mistakes (and being willing to make mistakes) is essential to learning. But on the other hand, law firms and clients do not easily accept that lawyers make mistakes, especially when the lawyers bill out their time at such high rates.

In 2011, Dr. Heidi Halvorsom wrote a great article in Psychology Today called “Why letting yourself make mistakes means making fewer of them”. The tagline repeats the paradox: “Allowing mistakes is the best way to avoid making them.” She has three recommendations:

  1. Start by embracing the fact that when something is difficult and unfamiliar, you will need some time to really get a handle on it. You may make some mistakes, and that’s OK.
  2. Remember to ask for help when you run into trouble. Needing help doesn’t mean you aren’t capable — in fact, only the very foolish believe they can do everything on their own.
  3. Try not to compare yourself to other people — instead, compare your performance today to your performance yesterday. Focusing on getting better means always thinking in terms of progress, not perfection.

A lawyer working in a second language is in a difficult situation. To improve, mistakes are necessary. And yet lawyers are “not allowed” to make mistakes. As suggested by Dr. Halvorsom, perhaps the way out of this conundrum is to make sure that legal work is checked. No Dutch lawyer who works regularly in English should be working in English without access to an English speaker to check things. None of this comes as a surprise to senior lawyers in legal organisations because they went through the same process themselves.

Greg Korbee (Originally published in December 2013. Republished in January 2019.)

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