An Admission Against Interest: Lawyers Make Mistakes , Too
by Natalie Lucas
People have reminded me that it is the "practice of law," not the "perfection of law." However, this can be easy to forget. Most lawyers tend to have type-A personalities, which lead to perfectionist ideals. There also is the added pressure in a legal career where seemingly minor mistakes can have major consequences. Typos, inadvertently sent e-mails, transposed numbers, missed deadlines — although perceived as just "goofs" or "gaffes" in another career, could lead to a client losing a case, a client losing money, or a client losing confidence in you. Most significant, it could lead to you losing confidence in yourself.
Although my legal career had barely just begun, there was a time, several years ago, when I thought it was over forever. I made a mistake. A big one. I had inadvertently sent confidential information to an opposing party. After discovering my mistake, I promptly informed my firm and the client what happened. Although I did not realize it at the time, the admission of my mistake saved my credibility with my firm and the client.
My firm and the client were understanding, and we were eventually able to resolve the mistake; however for months afterwards, I sank into an anxiety-ridden depression. As a new attorney, I did not have much confidence in myself to begin with. After that incident I questioned my entire ability to "practice" law. Other errors I made, no matter how small, would send me into a panic. I stopped sleeping and started dreading my work.
Although no lawyer wants to make a mistake, in an active career, it may be inevitable.
Fortunately, I sought out, and thankfully received, tremendous support from my firm and from other lawyers in the community. I began talking about my error to other lawyers, and learned that I was not alone in my misfortune. I was reminded that to err is human, and that lawyers are human. I received wisdom and advice from other attorneys about mistakes and how to handle them.
Megan Downing, an attorney with very active court caseload, admits that she too, has had some awkward moments on the record when she has confused the facts of her cases. She advises that attorneys should, "Recognize that no matter how prepared you are, things may arise that you did not anticipate. When they do, make your client your priority and protect your credibility. Admit your mistakes readily and graciously; do not make excuses for them. Your candor will be appreciated. It has earned me credibility with the court and the respect of my clients who deserve my honesty and thoroughness."
Although I did not realize it at the time, the admission of my mistake saved my credibility with my firm and the client.
As Downing notes, it is important to take ownership of your mistakes. Do not blame your mistakes on support staff or others to whom you may delegate work. You will lose credibility if you begin to make excuses or blame others.
Allison Ailer was a newly admitted attorney when she made the mistake of serving a subpoena on the wrong person. Although it was a minor mistake, Ailer feared her firm might fire her. She said, "After being upset about it for several minutes, I went and told my partner what happened. The mistake was fixable, and I did not get fired. I have learned that it is important to immediately ’fess-up and be honest. It will increase your credibility."
As Ailer said, most mistakes are fixable. Many mistakes, in the grand scheme of things, do not matter. What does matter is how you handle them. A small error can turn into bigger problem if it is not disclosed. It is important to be proactive and admit mistakes rather than hide them, or wait for someone else to discover them.
Kari Moreno said she has learned that mistakes can be avoided simply by asking questions. She said when she first started her job, she was sometimes afraid to ask questions if she did not understand an assignment. Moreno said, "I learned my employer would be more upset if I proceeded with an assignment not fully understanding it, rather than asking questions up front." Moreno said admitting that you do not fully understand a project or task may save time and expense of having to re-do the project later.
Although no lawyer wants to make a mistake, in an active career, it may be inevitable. The best you can do for your client, your employer, and yourself is to admit your mistake, and then use it as a learning opportunity. In the end, your mistake will probably make you wiser and more capable in your legal career.