You may be wondering if a lawyer with ADHD can also be a perfectionist.  The simple answer is a complicated “yes.”  At first glance, being a perfectionist may seem inconsistent with having ADHD, but it happens–even though one of the hallmarks of ADHD is a lack of attention to detail. First, let’s consider what perfectionism is. “According to the American Psychological Association, perfectionism  is the tendency to demand of others or of oneself an extremely high or even flawless level of performance – above and beyond what is required by the situation.” Perfectionism and attention to detail are not the same thing. Attention to detail is only one aspect of perfectionism. Think of them as two concentric or overlapping circles. They can overlap because perfectionists can express themselves by attention to detail but there is more to perfectionism than attention to detail. Let’s take a closer look.

On the positive side, perfectionists are hardworking, conscientious and strive to do their best. They approach new projects with enthusiasm and thrive on the challenge. On the negative side, they can set unrealistically high standards for themselves and others, lose sight of the bigger projects resulting in missed deadlines, delegate poorly preferring to do it themselves, micromanage others, and rarely give praise to others because they can easily find fault in anything. On the negative side, perfectionists are “driven by a fear of failure and concerns about negative judgments by others.”

Perfectionism and Attention to Detail

Lawyers with ADHD are driven, working long hours, oftentimes longer than their Neurotypical colleagues because of their real or imagined challenges in getting work done. They can hyperfocus on research projects and analyze the legal issues presented to the exclusion of all else, including rest and food. The problem for the lawyer with ADHD, who is also a perfectionist, is knowing when enough is enough. We are victims of the unrealistic standards we often set for ourselves. We strive to do our best, but our best is perfection, an unattainable goal. In seeking that goal, we miss deadlines, micromanage, or fail to manage by not delegating or delegating properly.

But, what about attention to detail? You concede that you may be a perfectionist, but there’s still this problem with not being attentive to the details. True. We’re terrible at picking up boring details, but details that we think are interesting or important, we’re on top of. Two examples: one lawyer was right on top of the issue of preventing inadvertent disclosure of PII and was actively involved in searching thousands of documents for PII because she cared deeply about privacy rights. Another (true) example from my own experience was being tasked with reviewing a 20-page internal memo to make sure that there was only one space (and not two) behind every period used in the document. After one page, I was losing my mind and delegated the project—a solid ADHD coping strategy.

So, what are the takeaways?

1. Lawyers with ADHD can be perfectionists who set unrealistically high standards for themselves and others. We need to learn to set realistic standards of excellence. Have you had your hours reduced on a project? That’s a sign that you are spending time perfecting your work product that the client doesn’t want to pay for. You might want to consider working with a colleague, mentor or supervisor to set realistic standards of performance or a coach.
2. When you are experiencing problems with attention to detail, the first thing you need to determine is what is getting in your way. Are you fatigued? Is there something you can do to refresh yourself? Are you bored? Maybe, you can delegate this project or find some other way to get it off your docket.
3. Have you ever looked at the work your colleagues turned in and noticed that it wasn’t nearly as good as yours? But, it was completed on time, and the partners accepted it. So, is it possible that your colleagues work was “good enough” and timely too? Are they getting more assignments than you? Sometimes, timely is more important than perfect. If you are faced with the choice between timeliness and improving a good product, ask the person who gave you the assignment which is more important.

A coach can help you deal with these challenges. Reach out to to see if coaching would work for you.

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