Tuesday, July 26, 2011
Advice on how summer clerks (and lawyers) should handle mistakes via Above the Law's small firm columnist Valerie Katz. (The long and short of it; fess up and fix it. The worst thing you can do is to be deceptive by trying to hide a mistake).
1. Do not panic.
Given most attorneys’ Type A personality, there is a tendency to freak out over making a mistake. That will only make the problem worse.
2. Determine exactly what went wrong and why.
Sometimes this will be obvious. For example, you missed a status hearing. Other times it may be less obvious. For example, at oral argument the judge asks about an argument you did not consider. It is important to understand the extent of the problem and the reason for it, because this is key to determine how you are going to fix it and prevent it from happening again in the future.
3. Come up with a plan to fix the problem.
You may be able to do this on your own, but likely you will need to ask for help. Do not try to handle the problem alone because you are afraid of the consequences. In so doing, you are not serving your client’s best interests or your own (because you will make the situation worse for yourself).
4. Fess up.
Once you have a handle on what happened and what you are going to do to fix the problem (subject to suggestions from the partner), it is important to tell the partner. This makes it clear to the partner that you take your job seriously and are proactive. Obviously, the partner may not think highly of you at the moment you tell him or her of the problem but doing so, especially right away, will make the partner more likely to forgive you.
5. Do not make excuses.
When you tell the partner what happened, give the facts and apologize. Do not make excuses. No one cares that you were up all night or had computer problems.
6. Move on.
It is natural to dwell on the fact that you made a mistake. Fight that urge. If you do not move on, then neither will the partner, and you may be distracted — causing you to make additional mistakes. Feel good that you handled the problem in a professional way and strive to do better in the future, but do not obsess over the past. Similarly, do not avoid the partner. If you do, then the last impression he or she will have of you is a negative one.
7. Try to avoid making the same mistake twice.
Because you did the work to determine what went wrong and why, it should be easy for you to come up with a plan to avoid a similar problem in the future. Be overly diligent until you are comfortable with your plan and know that it works. For example, if you missed a hearing, you should tell your assistant to remind you each time you have a hearing or keep a record of all court appearances on a whiteboard where you cannot miss it.
8. Go out of your way for the partner in the future.
Go out of your way to be proactive for the partner on the matter with the mistake. There are some attorneys who are not that forgiving. Do not give them any reason to feel that way about you.