The art of correcting mistakes

Although attorneys dread the day when they make an error on a case, mistakes are inevitable.

Lawyers’ capability to bounce back in the eyes of their colleagues, bosses and clients depends on their ability to acknowledge the blunder, act swiftly and provide a solution to correct the mistake, experts said during the American Bar Association webinar “Recovering from Mistakes with Credibility and Confidence.” 

“We know that everyone makes mistakes,” said Kathy Morris, founder of Under Advisement Ltd., a legal career counseling company. “Try not to make them — but it is important that you know how to handle them when you do.”

It is critical that lawyers catch and address mistakes early.

“Mistakes can become like snowballs, and the more they roll around, the bigger they get,” said Dan DeFoe, owner and lead consultant at Adlitem Solutions.

After you discover a mistake, don’t try to cover it up and don’t act too quickly.

“When you make a mistake, the first thing you should do is pause,” said Avery M. Blank, legal and policy analyst for the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland. “You want to take that time to think, and once you do, you want to quickly fess up and become solution-oriented.”

Colleagues and clients respond well to lawyers when they appear confident when acknowledging a mistake. 

“You have to show confidence,” Blank said. “It is key that you adopt an assertive presence. You have to stand tall, speak clearly and look people in the eye.”

Fixing mistakes is best done in person.

“It takes a lot of courage to march into somebody’s office or even talk to a client about a mistake, but people will respect you,” DeFoe said.

In order to avoid mistakes, lawyers must seek clarity on their assignments. Mistakes generally occur when people fail to pay close attention to details or do not receive clear instructions.

“Right at the offset, there is a lot of listening to be done,” DeFoe said. “If it is not done closely, the assumptions that get made about the assignment can throw a lot of monkey wrenches into your work product.”

Another issue that can lead to mistakes is making assumptions about other attorneys’ level of knowledge regarding the assignment or deadline. 

“It’s all about clear communication; you always have to ask the time frame for getting back to the assigning attorney with your work,” DeFoe said.

Lawyers also need to avoid making the same mistake twice.

“You do not want patterns of error to emerge in your practice,” DeFoe said. “A mistake you make more than once is an indication that you’re not doing something right — you’re making faulty assumptions.”

“If you make the same error twice, you really need to have much more communication and stop letting assumptions guide you,” he added.

If a lawyer finds himself in this situation, he should create a system for keeping track of his assignments so nothing falls through the cracks.

“Even have a mentor or a peer — someone who is more senior who can point things out before you make reoccurring mistakes,” Blank said.

It is not considered a weakness to ask for help.

“It is a mistake to not ask for feedback,” DeFoe said. “It simply helps you monitor your performance so you can put yourself in a position to do your best work.”