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Dealing with Mistakes

April 18, 2008

It’s bound to happen to every lawyer sooner or later.   You will make a mistake.  Maybe even two or three.  It’s inevitable.  Mistakes range from the mundane (like a grammatical error on a final version of a pleading) to the more significant (like blowing a statute).  They happen both to newcomers to the field as well as to experienced practitioners.

While committing a mistake will bring you in pretty common company, the most important thing is how to deal with them.  An important thing to remember is lawyer Andrew Beckett’s mantra in the 1993 movie, Philadelphia: “Every problem has a solution.”  If at all possible, you should try to remedy your mistake to the best of your ability.  You would be surprised at how often you can fix things.  Early on in my career, it appeared that a motion response that I was preparing was possibly going to be a day late.  So, instead of panicking, I thought of ways to solve the problem.  I was able to call opposing counsel and consent to a response extension.  (Of course, I was also able to later confirm with the court that the judge was not going to read the papers until a couple of days later, but that’s neither here nor there).

There are times, though, when there may not be a real solution, and that the mistake is significant.   What is absolutely essential is to own up to your error to your supervisor.  You have made an error, you tried but could not fix the problem but you cannot sweep it under the rug or hide from it.  The best thing then is to admit to the mistake, garner some help in trying to salvage the negative situation and learn to avoid the same problem in the future.  Chances are that your supervisor will be upset by your initial error but will respect your acknowledgment of the problem and willingness to learn a lesson from the mistake.

Remember that every lawyer makes mistakes, but not every lawyer handles them the right way.

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