“Failure is not an option”

–   Gene Krantz, NASA flight director in the movie “Apollo 13”

Gene Krantz, who was the NASA flight director from the Gemini program through much of the Space Shuttle era, has confirmed that he never actually said “failure is not an option” during the real-life heroics needed to save Apollo 13.  They just made that up for the movie.  In fact, one seems to hear this phrase a lot in movies, as it seems to be the theme for many action sequences where the band of heroes must somehow accomplish the impossible.

Lawyers might not be asked to accomplish the impossible all that often; after all, Atticus Finch never said “failure is not an option” in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”  But lawyers do face constant demands from their clients to do the seemingly impossible: to get things always right, all the time, no matter how hard.  The demands are always there.  So are the attendant rewards, but apparently only for those who don’t fail.  It’s easy to see how lawyers might develop a “failure is not an option” attitude.

Fear of failure certainly seems like an option

Scientific studies of lawyers show just how far this attitude has gone.  Dr. Larry Richard is a lawyer-turned-psychologist who has spent decades studying the personality traits of lawyers.  His studies have shown that lawyers, as a group, have low “resilience” scores compared to the general public:

“People who are low on resilience tend to be defensive, resist taking in feedback, and can be hypersensitive to criticism. In the hundreds of cases we’ve gathered, nearly all of the lawyers we’ve profiled (90% of them) score in the lower half of this trait, with the average being 30%. The range is quite wide, with quite a number of lawyers scoring in the bottom tenth percentile.”

What Dr. Richard’s studies show (at least in non-psychologist terms), is that lawyers are quite often afraid of failure.  Moreover, when lawyers do fail, some tend not to bounce back strongly, but instead take it badly, really badly.

It doesn’t have to be that way.  More importantly, it shouldn’t have to be that way.  In a recent article, Norwegian lawyer-turned-tech-entrepreneur Marete Nygaard tells us exactly that in “Why lawyers should learn to fail”:

“A lawyer’s education is based on the fear of failing, but not the ability to try (and perhaps fail). . . No wonder why most of them are reserved when it comes to testing out new models, new technology and other ways of working.”

Now, of course, when it comes to client service, it makes sense that lawyers need to be perfectionists.  After all, failure leads to a loss of client confidence.  Loss of client confidence leads to anger.  Anger leads to clients leaving.  Clients leaving leads to lawsuits.  And all of this leads – at least if Yoda is still correct – to the Dark Side.  No surprise then that many lawyers feel that every time they throw the dart, they have to hit the bullseye.  Thus, they often find themselves stuck in the only option worse than failure: never trying.

Sometimes memes get it wrong: the only way to know you could never fail is to never try


This reminds us of something we were once told by a friend who works at a too-big-for-anyone-here-to-fail law firm (and for this reason we won’t quote him by name): “If you always hit the bullseye, it only means that you are standing much too close to the dartboard.”  Such an attitude can close off a lot of necessary options. When searching for new technology or even business models, it often means taking a risk, as in taking a big step back from the dartboard before you throw.  Sometimes it even means throwing a dart out the window, hoping someone just happens to be walking by with a dartboard.  That’s not real comforting for anyone, especially those with low resilience.  Yet, there are ways of working that can make failure seem a lot less scary.

To this end, Marete’s article describe how lawyers could adopt what is known in the software world as the Agile Methodology:

“’Fail fast’ is the mantra when you are working in an agile way – this will give results much quicker than striving to always perfecting every solution. The method entails finding the cause of a problem or a challenge one wants to solve or improve, and then try different ways of doing so, in the quickest and most economical manner. Do it ‘well enough’, test it out, improve the chosen way based on responses, iterate and repeat. Iteration and flexibility before perfection.”

In fact, it’s exactly this Agile way of working that has allowed us to create and refine Woodpecker.  We’d like everyone to think that everything we’ve done has been an immediate, first try success, but we’d be lying if we told you that.  We’ve had our share of failures, but we failed fast and then tried different ways of working that ultimately succeeded.  One of the things we’ve all learned here is that sometimes the only thing that we can do is just try.  Some of our biggest successes have come from us saying to each other “F-it, let’s give it a shot!”

Is it time to take your best shot?

So, are you ready to take a step back from the dartboard and take your best shot anyway?  Marete leaves us with this final note of hope and inspiration to guide you:

“The method works for exploring all the different challenges the law industry are currently experiencing and will experience in the future . . . I think the answer to how lawyers will participate in the changes that will happen in the next decade is to be found in the solutions that contribute to the best customer experience. And I also think that lawyers could have a lot of fun testing and failing in finding their way there.”

Great news!  There’s a dartboard, right here – not too far away.

There’s no need to throw the dart too far (or out the window); just try Woodpecker. We do our very best to make sure that nobody has to fail.

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