Get out of your den of shame

I had dinner with three friends from law school this past week. One of my friends was in a bit of a rut, as she had made a mistake on an important file the night before. Her superiors were very understanding and the error was quickly rectified, but she worried that she could have handled the whole situation better.
Nobody likes making mistakes or feeling like they haven’t lived up to expectations, especially as a new lawyer. It feels terrible and can damage your self-confidence pretty quickly. The good news is the vast majority of mistakes are fixable. For this month’s column, I’ve gathered troves of good advice from junior and senior lawyers about how to bounce back from mistakes. My hope (for myself and others!) is that young lawyers can use these five steps to transition from the post-mistake “shame spiral” to fixing the problem and moving on.

1)    Take a deep breath

Give yourself 30 seconds, five minutes, whatever it takes to figure out what mistake you’ve made and to be certain that you’ve made it. This brief moment at “mistake ground zero” can save you a lot of time later. Taking time to calm down and consider the options is far better than acting rashly and making the mistake worse, or realizing too late that nothing needed to be fixed at all. Just breathe.

2)    Own up to it, but don’t apologize too quickly or enthusiastically

I’m told this is difficult for junior lawyers, because we automatically assume it’s our inexperience that led to the mistake. Sometimes the mistake isn’t actually your fault, or if it is, making a big show of an apology only draws attention to what may be a pretty minor flub.

When you have figured out that yes, you made a mistake, own up to it. As the saying goes, the coverup is always worse than the crime. If it turns out the mistake was made by someone else on your team, do not “throw them under the bus.” The buck stops with you, so you should consider it your mistake and speak to that individual privately later.

3)    Collaborate to develop a plan

Approach the supervising lawyer and explain the nature of the mistake and the various options for remedying it. What issues does the mistake create? Does this mistake need to be reported (i.e. to your insurer, the client, or the court)? What are potential ways to remedy the problem, and what are the pros and cons of each approach?

If you’re working alone on the file, talk to your colleagues. I heard this advice repeatedly from senior lawyers. When the mistake is yours, it can be difficult to be objective and clear-minded when it comes to fixing it. Objectivity and clarity are essential to high-quality client service.

4)    Figure out why the mistake happened

Sometimes mistakes are unavoidable, but other times you can pinpoint what went wrong. For instance, you didn’t read the rules before drafting your motion record. You didn’t have someone proofread your letter before it went out to the client. You hit “send” on your e-mail too quickly and it went to the wrong party. You rushed the factum and forgot an important case, etc. Figuring out where you went wrong will help you avoid the mistake in the future.

5)    Move on

Sometimes the hardest part of mistakes is letting them go. You can psych yourself out, which will just lead to more stress. If it means going for a run, having coffee with a friend, taking a BlackBerry vacation for a day, whatever — you need to let the tension go, get out of your den of shame, and realize you’re only human.

My favourite piece of advice came from my mentor. He told me that above all else, all lawyers (at any stage of their practice) should talk to their colleagues about their files. We should do so on a regular basis, but particularly if something appears to have gone sideways.

This may be the most difficult piece of advice to follow. It’s human nature to want to hide mistakes or perceived shortcomings. More than that, in a busy practice, it’s easy to stay in your office all day just to get through the mountain of work on your desk. That said, having a colleague help you navigate a difficult situation or problem can help avoid mistakes in the first place.

Ask for help if you need it. When you realize you’ve made a mistake, seek out the advice of your colleagues. They may have a fresh perspective or a technical suggestion that had not occurred to you. Collaborating is not only a key way to prevent mistakes from spiraling out of control, but is one of the most enjoyable aspects of working in a collegial environment.

It’s a cliché but true: mistakes are inevitable. Lawyers in all stages of practice make mistakes from time to time. We’re human, even if sometimes we’d prefer not to be. I suspect we’re all better off for making mistakes along the way, though it may feel otherwise. It’s all part of learning the practice of law. If we had it all figured out from the start, where’s the fun in that?

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