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What to do when you screw up

Get calm, don’t bury it, and find the opportunity.

Woman at her desk realizing she made a mistake

To err is human, the saying goes. Unfortunately, the kinds of mistakes new lawyers make – often because they don’t yet know any better – can have grave consequences for themselves, their firms, and their clients.

Potentially life-changing gaffes can include a tiny error in a court document, missing a filing deadline, and even an ethical breach made with the best of intentions, such as telling someone something they should not have been told.

When young lawyers realize that they’ve blundered, many understandably panic. “They don’t have a lot of experience, so one mistake can seem career-ending,” said Catherine Gage O’Grady, professor of law at the James E. Rogers College of Law at the University of Arizona, and author of the insightful academic paper, A Behavioral Approach to Lawyer Mistake and Apology.) “So young lawyers can panic precisely because they lack the experience of making and dealing with mistakes during their careers, as veteran lawyers have.”

The fact is, every lawyer will botch a job at least once in their lifetime. Here’s how to face such mistakes, remedy them – and even benefit from them.

Don’t ignore it

Like expired milk in a fridge, mistakes have a way of making themselves known, so pretending that they didn’t happen is not a wise move. Someone is bound to notice eventually, whether it be the judge who throws out your case due to that error in the document, or the client who sues your firm because you missed the filing deadline.

You still have the opportunity to limit the damage caused by your mistake – or maybe even fix it entirely – as long as you don’t ignore it and hope it goes away.

Write down what happened

Before you do anything else, write down the facts of your mistake: what happened, how it happened, how you realized it happened, and how you think it could play out.

Write the facts down as if you were taking a deposition. Be clear, complete, and objective.

The resulting document will ensure that your emotions don’t cloud your memory of the mistake. It can also be useful in explaining it to your supervisor.

Get support

Stop freaking out. To do this, you first need to acknowledge that you’re freaking out. Then talk with someone you trust, who can help you calm down to get control of your feelings and rationally decide what to do next.

“The best way for a lawyer (or student) to handle a mistake, from a self-care perspective, is to find support from others,” said Doron Gold, a therapist who specializes in treating lawyers, judges, and other legal professionals. “This support system can include colleagues, friends, and/or family. It should also include the local Lawyer Assistance Program.“ Each province has an LAP, which is funded by the Law Society but completely separate from it. It offers no-cost, confidential support, including counselling and peer support.

“Some firms have ‘ethics lawyers’ on staff, whose function is to provide the firm’s lawyers with a safe place to discuss mistakes and other issues,” said O’Grady. “This may be an option at your company.”

If need be, you may need to inform your professional liability insurance company. But this should be an informed choice; one you make after discussing your mistake with some who is a) on your side; and b) has the legal knowledge to advise you accurately.                             

Stay sober

“Drinking and drugs in excess solved all my mistakes,” said no one ever. When you’ve made a serious mistake that needs to be addressed, escaping into substance abuse is always a wrong choice.

Own your mistake

When you have accepted that you screwed up, documented what happened and consulted with knowledgeable people you trust about the real scope of your mistake and its possible consequences to you, your firm, and your clients, then it’s time to own it.

Schedule an appointment with your supervisor and tell them what happened. You may want to provide them with a copy of your documentation.

If you have concerns about your supervisor dealing with you fairly, admit your mistake to someone more senior who you do trust. But admit it all the same, and don’t procrastinate.

“The most important thing for a young lawyer is to approach their boss as soon as they can and come clean,” said Susan Sack, a professional negligence lawyer and partner in Toronto’s Rosen Sack LLP. “Try to fix the mistake, and don’t bury it: Tell your boss what happened as directly and clearly as you can.”

Be calm yet contrite

When admitting a mistake to a supervisor, balance emotional control with showing genuine contrition. You should take the interests of the firm and any affected clients into consideration, and make clear that you will do whatever you reasonably can to minimize and remedy any damage to these parties.

Recognize the opportunity

How you admit to a screw-up will make an impression on your supervisor(s). If you own your mistake in a mature, open, and professional manner, this impression can be positive – because nothing reveals a person’s true character better than how they deal with their mistakes.

“In my view, it is a lawyer’s ability to handle mistakes that determines whether an individual is a good lawyer or not,” said Valentin Erikson, owner and leading lawyer at Ottawa’s Erikson Law Firm. “At the end of the day, we are in the business of resolving problems – and what is a mistake but a problem?”