Many lawyers, especially lawyers new to the game, live in near constant fear of making mistakes. Those attorneys who don’t live with a healthy amount of respect for the possibility of mistakes are bound to confront the issue the hard way sooner or later. Truly, no one is perfect (except maybe San Francisco Giants’ starting pitcher Matt Cain). So it’s worth accepting that sooner or later you will make a mistake. It’s inevitable. In my experience it’s how you deal with mistakes that ultimately defines you as an attorney.
My most memorable mistake was during my third year as an attorney. I’d been double booked by two of my supervising partners, but somehow I hadn’t realized it. In fact, I didn’t realize it until I was standing at a site inspection about fifty miles away from a hearing I was scheduled to attend twenty minutes earlier. The realization came to me horribly quick. One minute I was talking with counsel for a co-defendant, and the next moment I suddenly had the terrible realization that I was supposed to be at the hearing. The hearing was for an important motion that should have been a slam dunk for our client.
The first thing I did was call the Court to see if the hearing had already occurred and, if so, what had happened. My worst fears were realized when the clerk informed me that the judge had granted the opposing counsel’s opposition simply because there was no one for our side present to argue against it. I saw my entire career flash before my eyes. I didn’t know what to do.
After taking stock of the situation the first thing I did was call the partner who’d assigned me to the hearing. As I recall my first words were: “Mike, I *&^%ed up.” I then proceeded to explain what had happened, that it was entirely my fault, and that I recognized the seriousness of my mistake. I expected him to blow up at me. Instead he calmly told me that he knew this had been a hard call to make. He added that he’d been on the other side of this call before. He explained exactly what we were going to do to deal with the mistake. The first step being to immediately call our client to let them know what happened and what we were going to do about it. After we dealt with the issue, I then determined how I’d make sure I never made that type of mistake again. Let’s just say I’m meticulous about my work calendar now and keeping it synced across all of my devices and work computers.
In the years since that event I’d witnessed many of my colleagues make mistakes. In some unfortunate cases they didn’t always handle things as well as they should. Here are my lists of dos and don’ts to consider next time you make a mistake:
What to do:
1. Admit that you made a mistake.
It’s important to come clean when you realize you’ve made a mistake. Not just to your superiors and your client, but also with yourself. In some cases, that can be difficult to do. Nonetheless, you have to do it. And, honestly, you’ll feel a little better once you’ve come clean with everyone.
2. Be honest with your partners and clients about the mistake.
Don’t try to sugar coat it. Be honest with the people affected by the mistake and about the significance of the mistake. Beyond the fact that you’ll be judged by how you handle the mistake, it is likely that you’ll run afoul of your state’s ethical rules if you aren’t honest about the mistake with your client.
3. Figure out a plan of action.
Figure out what you’re going to do to fix the problem. Chances are there are some mechanisms in place in your state to deal with an adverse outcome due to an attorney’s error or mistake. In some cases you need to accept that some consequences of the mistake are not reversible. If that is the case then start by taking measure of your current situation before determining the best way to proceed. Whatever your circumstances are, make your plan and then make that plan clear with your client or (if applicable) partners. Personally, I’d also recommend explaining to the client that they will not be charged for the measures that are pursued to rectify your mistake.
4. Figure out how to avoid the mistake in the future.
Figure out what caused the mistake. Was it simply an error in judgment or was it failure that resulted from your method of organization? If there are ways you can prevent similar mistakes from occurring in the future, implement those changes. I think it would be appropriate to explain the changes you intend to make to your client or partners. It further demonstrates that you take the situation seriously and also reassures them that you don’t intend to allow this mistake to occur in the future.
5. Apologize to everyone affected.
People are willing to accept that you made a mistake. They may not be very forgiving though if you appear unapologetic.
What to avoid:
1. Don’t blame others.
There is no surer way to lose the respect of your colleagues and coworkers than to throw blame around when you’ve made a mistake. Personally, I do my best to avoid working with anyone who had developed a reputation as a “blamer.” Conversely, on some occasions by accepting blame when you aren’t entirely at fault you can win the respect of your colleagues. In that regard, whenever I work with a team and mistake occur I think it’s important to consider how my actions contributed to a mistake or how actions I could have taken might have prevented the mistake. When people I work with make mistakes or contribute to mistakes others make, what I want to know is that they understand what they did and how to avoid that mistake in the future. Passing blame suggests that you don’t actually understand the mistake you made or how you can prevent future mistakes.
2. Don’t take hasty actions.
Once you make a mistake your immediate instinct is to try to minimize the mistake or reverse the mistake. In some situations that isn’t the right course of action. Whatever you do, try to calm yourself so that you can think clearly about the best possible solution to your problem. Otherwise you might find that you’re only digging a deeper whole.
3. Don’t sugar coat it.
You may find yourself tempted to downplay your mistake or to hide the full extent of the mistake. Not only is this unethical, but it’s bound to cause you more headaches down the road. By fessing up you’re able to let go of a lot of the stress that comes with knowing you made a mistake. Conversely, if you try to downplay it you’ll have to continue to live with the fear that the true extent of your mistake will eventually come out and you’ll ultimately lose the respect of your colleagues and – potentially – your license to practice law.
Do you have any further advice for colleagues who make mistakes? Let us know in the comments.