Associate Advice, Screw-Ups, Small Law Firms

Size Matters: To err is human, but you are a lawyer.

Mistakes happen. Take, for example, the current eyesore in Pioneer Court on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. Sculptor J. Seward Johnson’s “Forever Marilyn” is a 26-foot-tall, 34,000-pound sculpture depicting the image of Marilyn Monroe in the Seven Year Itch. The sculpture has been described as “creepy schlock from a fifth-rate sculptor that blights a first-rate public art collection.” One author seeking to answer the question of what is wrong with the sculpture concluded “pretty much everything,” including that it is sexist, kitschy, and has nothing to do with Chicago. Even @ebertchicago (aka Roger Ebert) is tweeting about this terrible sculpture.

More important than the mistake, however, is how one corrects the problem (except maybe with Marilyn, yuck). Don’t believe me? Check out any of your friends’ favorite quotations on Facebook, and at least one of them will have an inspirational gem.

With summer here, bringing with it a possible loss of focus (and fantasies about being outside), I decided to ask a team of experts how they recover from making mistakes in their practice.

Find out what they do, after the jump.

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.

The infamous Marilyn Monroe statue in Chicago.

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.

There was one situation where my panel of experts was divided: What if you make a mistake that can be handled without involvement of the partner, and they will never find out? I guess that depends on your tolerance of risk. Ask yourself: Do you feel lucky, punk?

In most situations, this step-by-step guide should help you move on from your mistakes. If you make a particularly egregious mistake that cannot be fixed with these steps, I wish you luck. Just be careful whom you ask for advice. One of my experts, Professor Tortfeazor, gave the following advice: “Take three shots of tequila and lie, lie, lie.” Do not do that.

When not writing about small law firms for Above the Law, Valerie Katz (not her real name) works at a small firm in Chicago. You can reach her by email at and follow her on Twitter at @ValerieLKatz.

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