Is Perfection a Wise Goal?

When I graduated from Harvard Law School in 1956, I thought I was pretty hot stuff. I began at a great law firm, run by lawyers trained in the traditional way: namely, producing exceptional work under all circumstances.

Early on in my career there, a senior associate asked me to draft a letter for a small client – simple, short, addressing a trivial matter. I wrote it easily, and sent it to the steno pool – remember, that there were no computers back then – who typed it up. Then I proudly showed to the lawyer who had assigned it.

He read it. He made copious edits and corrections. He said “This is horrible,” and asked me to write it again.

I won’t bore you with the details of the two days and fifteen rejected drafts that followed. Needless to say, I didn’t feel like such hot stuff by the end of the process.

Finally, after relentless rewriting, the lawyer told me that the letter was perfect. I admitted my relief, and told him: “If this is what practicing law is all about, I might not last long.” He laughed, and assured me it wouldn’t always be so tedious. But he added “This is an exercise we put all our new lawyers through, to show them the meaning of perfection. Client’s value our work because it is always perfect, in all ways–research, reasoning, expression and presentation. Many other lawyers cannot and do not bother to strive for that type perfection so that is our hallmark which attracts clients that wish for the best.”

That miserable hazing letter taught me the meaning and purpose of perfection, and I still demand the same standards – of myself and my employees. If a job is worth doing at all, it is worth doing perfectly.


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