The Unbearable Heaviness of Being Right

At work, as a lawyer, I have to be right. If possible, all the time. If not, I should be right most of the time. At the very least, I have to be right more often than I am not. If not, I won’t be a competent lawyer.

In my office, I have to be right in front of my staff. If I am doing wrong, they are not going to work for me or do so with resentment. If I am wrong about managing the office, we won’t be around as long as we have. Touchwood, of course.

I have to be right in front of my colleagues: the lawyers, the pupils and the interns. If I am wrong all the time, I will not command their respect as a lawyer. They will not want to learn from me. There is only so much you can learn from the failures of others.

I have to be right about the advice I proffer my clients because there is no use to a lawyer who is wrong. You don’t need to see a lawyer to get it wrong. You see a lawyer to get it right.

In a meeting room negotiating a deal, I have to be right about my client’s interests and rights. Because my colleague on the other side, if he is worth his salt, will insist on his being right about his client’s interest and rights. Being wrong on either side results in prejudice to our respective clients.

In court, when I stand up to argue, I have to be right. Or at least righter than the other side. I have to be right about the facts and authorities I rely on and arguments I advance. I have to be right in the way I advance the argument, answer a query or respond to an argument. If I don’t, I am likely to lose, if I haven’t lost already.

Ideally, as a lawyer, I should be right all the time. The rightness expected of me is as certain as night follows day. Nobody wants a lawyer who gets it wrong all the time, or most of the time. Everybody wants the lawyer who gets it right all the time. Lawyers that get it right all the time are likelier to be lauded, feted and admired. Lawyers that are known to get it right are likelier to have access to high-value disputes, interesting legal issues and wealthier clients.

There is a cost to getting it wrong aside from being shunned. As a lawyer, I can be sued for negligence i.e. carelessness. If I am deliberately doing wrong I leave myself vulnerable to a claim for fraud, cheating or breach of trust.

So lawyers do not just have to be right, they need to be right. At work, anyway.

I am not complaining about any of this. It’s the nature of my profession. Getting it right is part and parcel of being a lawyer. That’s why lawyers (and by that I mean those proper ones) work hard at researching, understanding, formulating, drafting, advocacy, and the like; we want to get it right and in the right way. Because that’s only what justice demands: done and seen to be done.

But truth be told, it’s not that bad – that expectation of having to be right, and of getting it right. Because it is nice to get things right, to be right, and acknowledged as being right. There is an internal satisfaction in being right about something. There is the confidence gained in ourselves, the fortification of our belief that we know something real about this world, the sense of a firmer grasp of this reality we are confronted with. All these bring a deep-seated sense of security to our existence.

But there is a danger to wanting to be right and being right all the time.

It lies in the burden of being right, of wanting to be right, of proving ourselves over and over again that we are right to others and ourselves.

Firstly, there is a huge amount of stress and anxiety in getting it right for someone else. We are stressed from the efforts and expectations of being right and anxious about avoiding wrong.

Recall a personal problem of ours. Imagine we could give it to someone competent to deal with, knowing it will be taken care of and not have to worry about it. That is the relief, peace of mind and a degree of psychological comfort we are meant to provide by being right from a legal standpoint.

That’s our problem. Now we are dealing with other people’s problems. Their reputations are at stake. Their company business owes or is owed money. Their constitutional rights were violated. They were sacked from their job. The stakes are usually high. It’s not always just about money. We need to be right about that.

So there is a lot of responsibility on our hands. Done right, we not only shoulder their problems but lift them from theirs for a while. Because ultimately it is their problem unless, of course, we can come to terms on a reasonable lifetime retainer, then hello again, my old friend.

Secondly, there is a common lack of appreciation for the effort that goes into getting it right. There is a great deal of time, effort, thinking and creativity that goes not into simply avoiding wrong, but getting it right. These are separate things. They are related. But avoiding wrong does not mean we got it right.

Getting it wrong is easy, getting it right always requires effort. A lot of effort. The problem for us lawyers when we get it right is that our work looks so ridiculously obvious and easy, particularly by those not in the business of having to be right about the law. They are often seduced into thinking that they can save expenses and simply mimic what they see. Of course, that’s how it’s done! It’s so obvious! Just cut and paste!

Tragically, they often belatedly discover that paying to get it right costs much cheaper than not paying and getting it wrong. There’s a reason why people with sick money always have lawyers advise them. They know it’s cheaper to pay a lawyer to get it right early than to suffer the risk of a more expensive wrong late; like putting out a little flame before it becomes a forest fire.

Thirdly, and more gravely, if we are not careful it can become a habit, then an addiction, if not a downright disease. The getting it right, being right, and in the right way is corrupted and conflated into I am always right or worse, additionally, I am never wrong.

We become unable to tolerate dissent or a different view. We get angry when someone heightens our cognitive dissonance. We aggressively reject any intrusion of reality into our worldview. We do not hear out their views. Instead, we annoy, mock, bully, and berate others into conceding we are right. We are constantly wrestling with our cognitive dissonance.

It no longer is about getting it right. It is about insisting we are right regardless. Each moment of engagement with someone is a fresh opportunity for reinforcing that; from the trivial to the significant. We become insufferable. Our families can’t stand us and we have a handful of people we call friends.

The Malays have an apt description for this pathology: bodoh sombong, stupid snob. Their arrogance leaves them stupid. What is stupid? Carlo Cipolla, a professor of economic history, in his book The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity, defined it as ‘A stupid person is one who causes harm to another person or group without at the same time obtaining a benefit for himself or even damaging himself.

Insisting we are right all the time leads to stupidity. A stupid lawyer is an ineffective lawyer. An ineffective lawyer is a waste of time and money.

Finally, there is the danger of forgetting there are more things to life than being right. It is not the be all and end all; it’s not the whole story. And there is a cruelty inherent to being right if we don’t watch ourselves.

Just because I got it right and you got it wrong does not suddenly entitle me to disrespect you, to berate you, to demean you, to think myself better than you. Those obsessed with being right forget that it does not relieve us of our obligation to be respectful, understanding and humble about what we think we know.

My being right in this instant doesn’t mean I will now do so every moment henceforth. It may suggest I am likelier to get it right next time. But that’s it. Investment houses always caution, Past performance is no guarantee of future performance. It’s like that. Even those always on the right have to take a left every once in a while if not they go in circles.

Being right once doesn’t have a halo effect on our other qualities. It doesn’t make us cleverer, beautifuler, fitter or more intelligent. But it does have a tendency to corrupt us – we become uglier, impatient, dismissive, disrespectful. Observe those that always insist they are right – are they nice? Far from a ‘halo’ effect, it tends to an ‘asshole’ effect.

We may not have a choice about getting it right or being right at work, but let us not forget that outside the confines of work, in life, there is more to it than just being right. In fact, the path to being right is a relatively narrow and straight one compared to the wide and plurality of paths to being wrong or getting it wrong. But there are other paths too; the meandering paths of exploration, of understanding, of empathy, of compassion which lead to vistas of an open mind, beauty and ideas.

It is only when we take the time and trouble to walk these other paths that we can for a moment suspend the unbearable heaviness of being right and appreciate that in life, there is far more beauty to being appropriate than right. If we walk them enough, we appreciate that being right, getting it right is simply a piece of a larger whole.

As we are.

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