How Can Lawyers React to Failure?

Small Group Study / Produced by TOW Project

This lesson is part of Issues Christian Lawyers Face, a study guide produced by The Theology of Work Project in partnership with Steven Moe, for the New Zealand Christian Lawyers national conference in May 2017. Click the Table of Contents on the right of this page to see the entire curriculum.


Sometimes things go wrong. This may be in relation to a particular client and their situation which we cannot control or due to a mistake we have made. Many of us have a perfectionist streak which may have led us to the practise of law in the first place. How do we react in the light of some form of failure?

Case Study

Vicky sat perfectly still and felt like the oxygen was being sucked out of the room as she listened to what the lawyer on the other side was saying. As she continued to hold the phone to her ear she began quickly shuffling and sorting through the pile of papers on her left desperately searching for the variation deed to confirm what the new settlement date was. The voice on the other end of the line continued in such a casual tone it just added to her rising sense of panic: “And so, because your client did not confirm the conditions in time our client is exercising its right to cancel the contract under clause 5.1 while keeping the non-refundable deposit …”. She finally found the piece of paper that would make all the difference. March 11. How could it be that date? She looked away and then back again. She looked up at the screen and her email to the client and read back her own words: “While we could confirm the conditions earlier there is plenty of time - but the latest we have to do that is March 14.” The deposit on this purchase for this business sale had been $125,000. Vicky’s client had told her to go ahead and confirm back on March 10 but she had advised them there was still time to do some more investigations so they had waited until March 13. It looked like she may have made a mistake. When she put the phone down she swivelled around in her chair back and form for a minute then she got up slowly and started the long walk down the hall towards the Managing Partner’s office.

Questions for Discussion

  • What can you relate to in the case study in your context, and why?
  • To what extent can there be disillusionment with the law when bad things happen? Do such failures expose our true worldview that practice is all about us as an individual (my goals, my pride and proving myself rather than working as a lawyer being a “calling”)? What forms the basis of our identity?
  • What role does grace play for a lawyer? Think about the perspective of the Managing Partner in the story above. Does grace impact how you would deal with mistakes that others who work for you have made?
  • This example could have been framed to highlight other situations. How would you deal with some shortcoming in the following contexts? A court decision doesn’t go your way after months preparing and arguing all the facts for your client. A complaint is laid against you by a client alleging some mistake was made on their file.

  • How does your faith help you in times of failure?

Biblical reflection

Peter was determined to be better at his job than anybody else following Jesus, saying, “Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you” (Matthew 26:33). So it was a huge failure for Peter when he denied three times that he even knew Jesus (Matthew 26:69-75). All he could do was cry, which is a normal reaction to screwing up and letting someone down.

Jesus’ responded in a way that restored his relationship with Peter, as well as restoring Peter to his vocation. When the resurrected Jesus appeared to his disciples on the beach, he asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Each time, after Peter affirmed his love, Jesus gave Peter a job, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17). Jesus forced Peter to face his failure and right the wrong he had committed. Not only that, Jesus used this moment as an opportunity to give Peter a fresh start in his work. The next step after their personal reconciliation was a charge to get back to work.

When you make a big mistake at work, grace might not come cheap. Like with Peter, it might come after tears and some humiliating conversations. But afterwards there’s the hope that God still has important work for you to do.

Discuss: What are the key principles from this study that could be applied in your situation?

For more scriptures on this topic, see the 5-day devotional reading plan Working through Failure. Or watch the video of Andy Crouch on How Failure is Part of Life.