How to handle losing a case as a lawyer

Where do I start? The idea for this article came up because I’m fresh off of losing two cases within the past couple of weeks. Besides writing on Native Mommy Lawyer, I do practice law as my full-time job. So, this article is about how to handle losing a case as a lawyer.

I’ve been practicing law for almost 11 years, so I’ve had my fair share of losses over the years. I can get over most of them fairly quickly but some of them do sting hard. As a government attorney, I don’t get to choose my cases, so that makes it a little easier to not take a loss so personally.

For one of my recent losses, I didn’t expect it to impact me the way it did. I felt very emotional about the loss and actually had to take some time and effort to recover from it.

Losses can sometimes be difficult for attorneys to handle, especially in ways that are healthy. Unfortunately, in the legal field, it’s all too easy to turn to substance abuse, which can exacerbate a loss and make things worse. Trust me, I’ve been there.

So, here is how to handle losing a case as a lawyer.

Process the feelings

how to handle losing a case as a lawyer

The worst type of loss is when you feel so sure about your position on a case. You might think that there’s absolutely no way that a judge is going to rule against you because your position is solid and the law is clearly on your side. You’ve done the research, put in the work, and everything looks fantastic.

Then…you lose the darn case! What the flip!

Embarrassingly, this exact thought pattern happened to me. Honestly, I felt angry about the ruling. Even though I’m in my mid-30’s, I can still throw an inner tantrum and declare to myself that the judge is wrong and he didn’t interpret the law correctly, and so on.

There was anger, embarrassment, disappointment, rejection, and other emotions. I know, these are a lot of negative emotions. This doesn’t happen with every loss thankfully.

I spent some time processing these feelings through some meditation and self-reflection. For the rest of that day, I didn’t pour myself into other difficult cases. Instead, I took it easy because I knew that my best work wouldn’t happen while ruminating on a loss.

Don’t take it so personally

A lot of lawyers put so much time and effort into their work. Many attorneys are compassionate about practicing law and serving people, so it can be difficult to not take a loss personally.

I have to remember that winning or losing a case is really not about me. It’s about the pursuit of a just outcome for the individuals involved in the case. 

I’m simply an advocate arguing the application of law to the facts.

Find the lesson

how to handle losing a case as a lawyer

After a loss, I always ask myself about lessons learned. Could I have done anything differently? Was there more research to be done on a certain aspect of the law? Is this a just outcome?

In some respects, losses are great because they really force you to analyze exactly what happened and why it didn’t turn out the way you expected. I can’t say this is true when there’s a win. With a positive outcome, there’s a tendency to think that I did everything the right way, so there’s less scrutiny and analysis of the outcome.

Sometimes, the lesson is simply humility. Every seasoned attorney is going to have successes and losses over an entire career. The losses are what give us the motivation to practice more, research more, and become better attorneys. At least that’s my experience.

Practice civility

Civility in the law is pretty important. The American Bar Association has a great article on “Civility as the Core of Professionalism.”

As attorneys, our reputations precede us, especially if you happen to practice in a small legal community. I practice in New Mexico, so a lot of attorneys know each other from the one law school in this state or from colleagues.

Continuing to uphold civility at all times is necessary. After a final ruling, you may have to litigate other issues or continue working with the parties involved. So, it’s ideal to practice civility at all times, even when you don’t feel like it.

When you’re coming out of a loss, you may want to sulk, get angry, or even be defiant. You may never want to see or talk to opposing counsel again. These reactions are fine and they eventually pass, but you don’t want to do or say anything you might regret when you’re in your feelings.

Keep on keeping on

how to handle losing a case as a lawyer

When you get knocked down, it’s okay to take a day or two to recover mentally and emotionally. Then, it’s time to get up and start working again.

Think of a loss as building resilience as a lawyer. If you can get through the mental and emotional aspects of losing a big case, then you can get through other tough times in a career.

How to handle losing a case

Let’s face it, being an attorney is tough and we may not always know how to handle losing a case. After practicing for 11 years, I have to find ways to take care of my emotional well-being while doing this very difficult job.

Losing a case is not easy. So, if you find yourself in that position, take some time to process, find the silver lining, take yourself out of the equation, and practice civility.

I hope you enjoyed this article on how to handle losing a case as a lawyer.

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