By: Gaston Kroub
Show me a lawyer who has not made a mistake in their career, and I will show you a lawyer who has never practiced a single day. Mistakes happen. Lawyers are human, and no matter how well-trained, or how high their billing rate, there will be times when someone screws up. Most of the time, those screwups turn out to be harmless. Other times, they land the unfortunate maker of the mistake in these pages, as an unwilling “news item” of interest.
As with many other things related to law practice, younger lawyers are often not taught how to deal with the inevitable mistake when one happens. As a result, easily correctable situations are often made worse, with the “cover-up worse than the crime” an often-seen consequence. In fact, other than being told not to make mistakes, younger lawyers, whether at Biglaw or smaller firms, often receive no training at all with respect to this issue. Making things worse is the tendency of firms to turn partners into demigods, who must have never made a mistake on the way to their current position. And no firm would ever admit that one of its current partners is capable of error. While definitely not true, this aspect of firm “culture” often serves to inculcate in younger lawyers an irrational fear that if they make a single mistake — disaster. Bye-bye to their jobs, at least.
This is a silly state of affairs. And when younger lawyers think that the more senior lawyers they work for are infallible, they are much less likely to come forward to ask for help correcting a mistake. No one wants to be embarrassed and admit they created a problem. But when mistakes are not addressed quickly — ideally with the input of more experienced lawyers who are better positioned to understand the ramifications of both the mistake and the corrective measures necessary — they have a way of festering, making it worse for everyone.
The solution is a simple one: educate younger lawyers, and “remind” more senior ones, about what to do when a mistake happens, as part of trying to minimize the cultural barriers found in law firms that hamper having mistakes addressed quickly and with the input of everyone on the legal team. To start, we can learn from one of the great basketball coaches of all time, the recently deceased Dean Smith — who, despite coaching some of the best players of all-time, definitely saw his share of mistakes perpetrated by his team on the court.
We can use one of the boneheaded mistakes I made as a relatively senior associate as our example.