In-House Counsel

Moonlighting: Giving Credit and Taking Blame

Last week, I came across this great blog post: The Merits of Not Throwing Someone under the Bus. It touches on a few issues that come up all the time during the practice of law (and probably at any job that involves contact with other human beings, which I’m pretty sure describes a few of the legal ones out there, but correct me if I’m wrong).

In sum, Joey P. found herself in a situation in which she opted to be a team player by correcting some minor edits in a motion that another attorney in her office had prepared and then sending the document out to the client. Doesn’t sound like it would amount to anything, does it? Well, there was a big, dumb mistake in the motion, and the client emailed Joey to point out the blunder (while cc:ing a couple of partners because clients tend to be super nice and thoughtful like that).

Joey explained to her partner what had happened and wanting to be a team player, she took responsibility for not noticing the mistake made by the other attorney and decided not to rat that person out.

The way she handled the situation was pretty admirable (especially for a lawyer). There are, however, a couple of other steps that I would have taken if I had been in her situation that I think would have helped to further team dynamics and also to prevent a poor, innocent associate from being blamed for someone else’s screw-up….

For one thing, before sending the email, I would have checked whether the other lawyer wanted to send it himself. Every once in a while, I meet a lawyer who is extremely protective about his work and his clients. I don’t quite get why, but I’ve learned that until you know otherwise, it’s safer to assume that the people you work with feel this way and that it’s better not reach out to their clients unless they know about it beforehand.

If the other lawyer was fine with my sending the email, I would then have described in the email which attorneys had worked on which portions of the document. In this case, since my contribution was so minimal, it would have been something like, “I’ve attached the motion to dismiss for your review. Please note that this document has been prepared in large part by John Screwup, so please reach out to him with any questions.” Describing the contributors’ roles is useful for a number of reasons.

First, it’s a great way to keep a record of what happened. (I don’t mean CYA, although we’ll discuss that later.) Regardless of whether anything goes wrong or not, at some point in the future, you may need to return to a motion or memo or contract and understand why certain parts were drafted the way they were. It’s a lot easier to figure this out if you have a record that actually attaches the document indicating who worked on the various parts. Because having to rely years later on handwritten notes or the memory of a conversation you think you had with someone in the hallway is just not as helpful.

Second, it’s a way of making sure that everyone who worked on the document gets credit. In Joey’s case, she was trying to be nice and save the other attorney the menial task of drafting and sending out an email. Some lawyers, however, will just assume the worst in others and interpret such kinds of actions as an attempt to steal credit for work.

Third, it lets the client know whom they should contact in the event they have questions and avoids the email sender from having to be the middleman going forward. This increases efficiency and decreases annoyance all around.

Finally (and most importantly?), it’s CYA. Just as the email makes clear who gets credit for what, it also clarifies who’s responsible for what. Enough said.

Also, I give Joey a ton of credit for being nice enough to not reveal her co-worker’s secret identity — even though I would have considered ratting him out.

This isn’t (only) because I’m a meaner person. And it’s not just because it would be unfair for me to take the full load of the blame. In some cases, sharing the name of the person who messes up is actually better teamwork.

Being a team player involves cooperating with and encouraging others, celebrating accomplishments, keeping people involved, and other similar feel-good stuff. But sometimes people miss the fact that it also involves identifying weaknesses throughout the team and helping to work on those so that the entire team improves. Often, both individuals and management need to be aware of where those weaknesses are in order for appropriate training and development to take place. It’s a lot harder to effect change and improvement if the sources of problems are hidden.

Of course, when you’re ratting someone out, delivery can be everything. Because Joey’s right — “HE DID IT, NOT ME!” — just may not really go over all that well. Unless you’re in a sandbox with other three-year-olds.

FYI, since Joey is a real person (and a nice one at that), I’m closing the comments for this blog post. If you want someone to blame for that one, that would be me.

Susan Moon is an in-house attorney at a travel and hospitality company. Her opinions are her own and not those of her company or anyone she works with. Susan may share both her own and others’ experiences (especially the experiences of those who have expressly indicated to her that they must not under any circumstances be shared on ATL). You can reach her at and follow her on Twitter at @SusanMoon.

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