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March 20, 2007

Today I found myself in an interesting position.   No less than an hour after I was told about a mistake I had made on something, I had to turn around and correct a first year who had made the same exact mistake on another matter.  Neither of the mistakes was anything ground breaking or client damaging, but really just boneheaded errors that you hate yourself for making.  It got me to thinking about mistakes and the best way to deal with them in your work and the work of others.

 We all make mistakes and as cliche as that may be, I am surprised by how many people don’t learn from them.  For whatever reason lawyers seem to be afriad of making mistakes.  Perfection is a must, but should it be?  Thinking about this and looking at my career I started to realize that learned more from my missteps than I did from the times I did things without error (I’ll leave it to you to hypothesize as to which bucket is fuller).   But you don’t necessarily learn by merely seeing that there was a mistake or even from taking corrective action.  The learning came from accepting for myself that I made the mistake and not trying to find someone or something else to blame.  I accepted responsibility and by doing that, and feeling the sting of embarrasment, I promised myself that I wouldn’t let it happen again and changed my behaviour accordingly.

By contrast I’m sure we all know people who can always find some excuse or scapegoat for their errors.  If you watch, you’ll notice that these people also seem to make the same mistakes over and over again.  Why?  Because they never accept that they are making mistakes, so their behavior is never changed in a corrective way. 

What if it isn’t your fault?  Okay there are probably limited instances where this truly is the case, but not many.  Perhaps the direct error may be that of someone else, but let’s say there is an error in something someone else does for you and it is found out.  Perhaps the direct error is theirs, but in a supervisory role, you may have made an error by not properly checking their work.  If you simply blame your subordinate, you likely won’t think about an error you made and as a result will likely not check work in the future, continuing the error.

The bottom line is this, if you are brought to task on a mistake you have made, don’t avoid it, don’t assign blame, rather embrace it.  Look at the situation holistically and find ways that you could have done better.  I am sure you will find something and if you take that something with you, you will find that your errors become fewer and further between.

 I know this post has rambled on a bit (likely because this has been as cathartic for me as it has been entertaining, or perhaps thought provoking for you), but let me know your thoughts?  Anyone perfect?  Any doosey mistakes you’d like to share?

One Comment leave one →
  1. stupid permalink
    March 23, 2007 1:51 pm

    This is (still) painful for me to share. But I will do so anyway.

    Three months into my first year as an associate I was assigned to work on a summary judgment motion. I worked and worked and worked. Finally, I thought I had come up with a brilliant argument. Our client was facing possible rescission of their insurance policy. I thought I had a statute of limitations argument. Unfortunately I had completely ignored/forgotten/I don’t know what about the difference between law and equity (and somehow misunderstood a pa supreme ct case on the issue). You can’t make a statute of limitations argument in equity. I should have argued laches instead. There is a presumption that laches bars a claim when the analogous statute of limitations has passed.

    I worked on the brief alone over the Thanksgiving weekend for filing the following Monday. With the o.k. of my superior, I filed the brief.

    A week or so later the superior was preparing to argue the motion. He caught the mistake the morning of the argument and withdrew the brief.

    It was my mistake. I owned up to it. I embraced it. I apologized. I was punished. I didn’t trust myself or my research for at least a year.

    Maybe I over compensate now. But I figure that any amount of work I have to do is worth it. I will never ever make the same mistake again.

    But I still live in fear. And I still have doubts about my analytical acumen. The reason I write is because perhaps I embraced my mistake -as well as my superior’s criticism that I lacked any legal ability – too much.

    Thank you for sharing your experience. Everyone makes mistakes. Mistakes are an important part of the learning process, as you point out. Take stock, address the mistake, make adjustments and MOVE ON.

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