Top 5 Tips for Attorneys Who Make Mistakes

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Summary: Despite your hard work, your intellect and your best intentions, you are going to make mistakes. Here is how to deal with them.

Everybody - even lawyers at the best firms - makes mistakes. There, we said it. As a junior associate, you may come to believe that everyone you work with simply glides along in the practice of law without ever making an error. You may never know of their errors, but that does not mean they do not exist.

Even attorneys make mistakes.

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Many people say that a junior associate gets no credit for doing a good job cite-checking a brief but takes a ton of blame for not doing a good job. Quite correctly, this adage points out that while perfection is often expected, you are not going to be completely infallible. Despite your hard work, your intellect and your best intentions, you are going to make mistakes. Some of these mistakes are trivial and small, while others have a greater potential impact.

What do you do when you realize that you have made a mistake that is not something trivial like a typo in the memo you just gave the senior partner? Here's some advice on how to handle those situations you hope never arise.
  1. If There is Even a Remote Chance Others Will Find Out, Do Not Keep It to Yourself

Even if you see how to solve the problem, be careful about doing it completely on your own. Yes, there are many mistakes that you can fix by yourself and do so on a regular basis as a part of your job. We are not talking about those types of errors. Having made a mistake, do not compound it by overstepping your level of responsibility in an effort to cure the problem without anyone else finding out. You have made a mistake, and becoming a renegade to fix it is only going to make things worse.

When you have a chance, sit down and analyze what happened, why it happened, and what you can to do to make sure it does not happen again. Focus your energy on making whatever changes are necessary. Do you need to be better organized? Do you need to spend more time on certain tasks? Do you need to attack tasks earlier and not leave them to the last minute? Be honest and critical of yourself and determine what needs to change. If your own mistakes cannot motivate you to make positive changes, then your problems are bigger than the mistake you have just made.
  1. Accept Consequences

Even mistakes that are fixed without too great an incident will have consequences to you and your career. Be ready to accept them. Whether you have to weather them in a review or not, you should be ready to redouble your efforts to earn people's trust and respect. Those efforts are incredibly important because, in many ways, the perception of you will shape the perception of your mistake. Are you a good lawyer who made a stupid mistake or is the mistake symptomatic of how you practice law? You know which one you want to be, so get busy demonstrating it.

It may take some time, but you will be able to rebuild whatever a mistake may have cost you. If nothing else, show your colleagues your resiliency and your desire. We bet that if you were to ask some of the lawyers you respect the most whether they ever made a bone-headed mistake early in their career, all but the most egotistical will tell you a story that they now consider funny about a mistake they made. Remember, if you work hard to regain their confidence, your faux pas will, in time, become equally as funny.

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  1. Don't Wish Mistakes Away

Mistakes do not age well. Having discovered your own mistake, it is common for instincts of self-preservation to kick in. You want to do nothing and hope that no one else will notice and that you will survive without incident. In virtually every case, this instinct is wrong and will only make things much worse. Is there a chance that no one will notice and you will never have to deal with the problem? Of course. But you are taking a mighty big gamble.

Remember you are a professional and have a duty to do your best for the client, even if it means that you must own up to something you have done. If a mistake you have made is going to injure the client (or only get worse), you have a professional (and ethical) obligation to bring it to light.

Moreover, you will only look worse if someone else discovers your error. It is very important to maintain the trust and respect of your colleagues, clients and third parties. Owning up to your own mistake is part of that. Would you continue to trust someone who tried to cover up their missteps?

Chances are, in the adrenaline rush of nervous energy that comes with the grim realization that something has gone wrong, the problem looks much bigger and much worse than it really is. In fact, it can often be fixed if promptly addressed. Remember, by hiding it you will often make it much harder to fix at a later date.
  1. Have a Plan to Fix the Mistake

Realizing your mistake and knowing that you must communicate it to the other members of your team, it is time to formulate a plan. You should be conveying a two-part message: "this is what I did (or did not) do and this is how we can fix it." Notice our use of pronouns. If you made the mistake, take responsibility for it and do not try to foist it on someone else with a lame excuse. Here again, diverting blame when it is yours is a recipe for losing respect. But having taken responsibility, it is for the whole team to correct.

Understanding what it takes to solve the problem will often give you the perspective you lost when you first discovered the error of your ways. But more importantly, it shows that you are still a contributing member of the team and can be depended on. Obviously, you should be ready to do as much as you possibly can to correct the problem.

A caveat is in order here. If you discover an error and have no idea how to fix it, do not let days and weeks go by while you try to figure out what to do. If you are at a loss about what to do, then do not wait for inspiration to disclose what you have done.
  1. Keep Your Perspective

That brings us to the last, and most important, point. Keep your mistakes (and for that matter, your triumphs) in perspective. Whatever you did may be serious and it may be scary, but it is seldom the end of the world. Do you need to make sure that it does not happen again? Of course you do. (Usually, having gone through the experience, you are certain never to repeat it). But do not let it destroy your confidence or make you feel that you have lost all value as a lawyer. If you believe those things, why should anyone else think otherwise?

Leave your mistakes in the office, regroup, and prepare to fight another day.

Image Credit: "Doh" by hobviassudoneighm via Flickr under a CC BY 2.0 license

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