Associate Advice, Screw-Ups, Small Law Firms

Small Firms, Big Lawyers: Sorry About This Post

Have you ever messed something up for a client? Ever make a mistake that was yours and yours alone, that caused your client a problem and you and your firm some embarrassment?

If you haven’t, then you haven’t been practicing very long. Because you can’t practice for a long time without making some mistakes. It’s human nature, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying or self-deluding.

In 17 years of practicing as a small-firm lawyer, I made my share of mistakes. More than some lawyers, perhaps; fewer than others. Not so many that it prevented me from getting a reputation among clients and peers as a decent lawyer. But more than I wanted to make.

Obviously, we should strive to minimize the number of mistakes we make as lawyers, and to minimize their severity. But one of the most important things to learn as a lawyer is how to handle it when you’ve made a mistake.

Here are eight tips to help you fix your mistakes and make your clients love you.…

1. Own the mistake.

When you realize you’ve made a mistake — or worse, when your client tells you that you’ve messed up — the first thing you need to do is get in front of it. You start by accepting the mistake, and accepting responsibility for it. (I’m not talking about a situation when your client thinks you’ve made a mistake but is wrong.) It’s not fun to do (none of this mistake stuff is), but you need to tell your client that you understand that you made the mistake, and that it’s your responsibility. Even if it’s not your fault.

When something happens that adversely affects your client, he or she isn’t going to feel better that it wasn’t really your fault. That sort of buck-passing usually makes the client more frustrated. If the print shop was late getting the copies of the closing documents to the other side, that may not have been your fault, but it was your responsibility. The client already knows this. It’s important that you show that you know it. “You’re right,” you say. “That should not have happened. That was my responsibility.”

2. Say “I’m sorry.”

Words matter. I’ve seen lawsuits filed and settlements unraveled because of a failure to apologize, even though the mere words don’t really change the situation. You need to say the words “I’m sorry.”

And not “I apologize.” No one talks like that in real life. “I apologize” is stilted and formal, and harder for someone to take seriously. “I’m sorry” is far more effective. Personally, I prefer “I’m so sorry.”

3. Don’t make your sorry conditional.

Many people get the “I’m sorry” part right, then immediately screw it up by adding the word if. “I’m sorry if I offended you.” “I’m sorry if I upset you.” By making your apology conditional, you take away much of its force, and you’re subtly shifting some of the responsibility away from you and onto your client. “I’m sorry if I upset you” suggests that maybe it was partly your fault, because you’re too easily upset. Even worse is the “I’m sorry if you took it that way.” That means it really is your client’s fault and not yours. The only word that properly belongs after “I’m sorry” is that.

4. Don’t be defensive.

More than other people, lawyers tend to have a solid sense of their own worth. We like to think that we’re smart and competent and professional, and that’s fine. We also tend to be an argumentative lot. (Don’t think so? Point proven.) So when someone tells us that we did something wrong, it’s natural for us to want to fight back.

Don’t. That’s not what your client wants to hear right now. A mistake was made, you’re responsible for it, the end. Now is not the time to debate it.

I used to have an associate who had difficulty with this. The individual refused to accept my characterization that a mistake had been made and wanted to rebut everything point by point. That tended to cheese me off to the point where I had to say, “No. I’m not looking to argue about it. This happened. It’s not good. Apologize for it and don’t let it happen again.” Clients are less likely to do that. They’ll just fire you.

5. Offer a brief explanation, but not an excuse.

And I mean “brief.” It’s appropriate to say what happened, so that the client will have some understanding. But clients don’t want to hear excuses. No one likes excuses. They tend to turn into a dog-ate-my-homework situation, and they also suggest that you’re violating Tip #1 above. I’ll even say it out loud: “I’m not making an excuse for this, but I do want to briefly explain what happened.” But don’t linger on the explanation, or it will seem like an excuse.

6. Fix the mistake as best you can.

This is pretty obvious. Do whatever you and your firm can do to fix the mistake as fast as possible.

7. Offer something more.

But #6 is not enough. Just fixing the mistake does not put everything back to square one, because the mistake still happened, and the client’s still unhappy. That’s why you need to do something extra. It doesn’t have to be much. But it has to show that you understand that the mistake caused pain to your client, and that pain has to be offset. Offering something for free is a common solution. Starbucks does this all the time. If your drink gets messed up or you have to wait longer than normal, they’ll quickly give you a free-drink coupon to make up for it. Importantly, it should be more than what the client expects he or she is entitled to. You want your client to feel better off than before the mistake.

8. Follow up afterward.

Soon after you’ve done all this, make sure you check in with the client. This cements the notion that you really do care about the client, and that the mistake was an anomaly.

Handled correctly, following these steps after a mistake can actually strengthen your relationship with the client. Do try to avoid mistakes, of course. But when you make one — and you will — do what you can to turn that mistake into an opportunity.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go apologize to Lat for this post’s being late. “Hey, David. I’m sorry if you think this is late.”

Jay runs Prefix, LLC, a firm that helps lawyers learn how to value and price legal services. Jay Shepherd also spent 13 years running the Boston management-side employment-law boutique Shepherd Law Group. He writes the ABA Blawg 100 honoree The Client Revolution, which focuses on reinventing the business of law, and Gruntled Employees, a workplace blog. Follow Jay on Twitter at @jayshep, or email him at

(hidden for your protection)

comments sponsored by

Show all comments