Official Magazine of the Denver Bar Association

What Every Lawyer Should Know About Setbacks


n the last edition of The Docket, I discussed what lawyers should know about mapping their success. This article addresses the other side of the same coin. What do you do when you face inevitable setbacks? As lawyers, we will face obstacles and challenges. They are inherent in our profession. These could be in the context of your job, a new opportunity, a case or deal, a professional relationship, or something totally outside of the practice of law. Here are five considerations to help you address the challenges you will meet over the course of your career.


Have perspective. John Wooden wrote, “don’t let the things you can’t do stop you from doing the things you can do.” As a lawyer, you have already achieved a lot more than what you have failed at. Think about the successes you have already reached in education, the courtroom, the boardroom and in your community. Be thankful for what you have accomplished and never lose sight of this. Do not let the things that have not gone your way prevent you from continuing to pursue the achievements that you have already built a track record of reaching. Yes, there will be setbacks and we do not always get what we want. However, your perspective is the best indicator of your ability to deal with challenges.

Learn, adapt and move on. A setback is like a chapter in a book, not the book itself. Read and study the chapter, learn what you can from it, and then move on. If you keep dwelling upon or re-reading the same chapter, you will never finish the book. While we should learn valuable lessons from setbacks, dwelling on them prevents us from growing and moving forward. Also, while we should adapt to avoid having the same setbacks occur again, at some point, over consideration is counterproductive. Know that each chapter of a book builds on all chapters before it and that there are many more chapters to go. Obstacles and setbacks, like in any good novel, are a part of a larger book that you must keep reading to see how it all fits together.

Acknowledge what you can and cannot control. Oftentimes, despite your best efforts or time and dedication, things just do not go your way. While you may consider it unfair, that’s life. The ability to show equanimity during such instances is an important trait. There are a lot of factors that are out of our control and we need to accept that rather than overly blaming conditions or others. Take responsibility for what you can control, and acknowledge what you cannot. As long as you tried to place yourself in the best position to succeed, you have to let the chips fall where they may.

Realize a setback means you are trying. A lot of people never fail because they never try. Those people like a routine and never push their boundaries. While safe, it’s not challenging. Life is too short to play it safe all of the time. You have an obligation to be the best you can and that means facing challenges and inevitable setbacks. Doing so means that you have pushed your limits to a place that you are uncomfortable. That is where true development lives — whether you get the desired outcome or not. Take solace in the fact that you are trying and that your will to achieve outweighs your fear of failure. Abraham Lincoln has been attributed as saying, “I am not bound to win. I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live up to what light I have.”

Like medicine, obstacles are good for you. They build character, as your mom or dad would tell you. Character is built in hard times, not easy ones. Similarly, great leaders are developed, not born. It is not always about what you have accomplished, but what you have overcome. If you can see a setback as a part of your overall growth, not as a rebuke of you or your abilities, then you have learned an important lesson. Enjoy the fact that you have the opportunity in the legal profession to challenge yourself and that you will not defeat every single obstacle you face. No matter what, know that you come away better thereafter than you were before. “Mountaintops inspire leaders, but valleys mature them,” said Winston Churchill.

I hope you take head-on the challenges presented to you as an attorney. When that setback inevitably occurs, take it with perspective, learn and move on. From knowing so many of you, I know that you already do. D

Leave a Reply

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS