Biglaw, Midsize Firms / Regional Firms, Screw-Ups, Small Law Firms, Solo Practitioners

3 Steps To Owning Your Mistakes

Keith Lee

One of the great, unspoken realities of being a new lawyer that is never mentioned in law school is that you are going to screw up – badly. And then you’re going to have to explain it to your client or supervising attorney.

You’re going to miss a deadline, not file an objection, miss some case law, or not contact an attorney involved in the case on a hearing. A mistake is going to be made and it will be your fault.

You may be tempted to try and shift the blame. Come up with excuses as to why something outside of your control caused the problem. That you were swamped with work and had too much on your plate. He said, she said. But if it was a task assigned to you, it is your personal responsibility to make sure it was completed on time and specification.

As the task, and subsequent mistake, are your responsibility – you must own it….

1) Don’t Panic

Tempting as it may be to shut your office and have a private meltdown, it isn’t going to do anyone (you, the firm, the client) any amount of good. Rather, put your anxiety and nervous energy into finding out how the mistake occurred. Time to put on your detective hat and investigate the problem.

  • What circumstances led to the current situation?
  • Were their multiple small mistakes that led to a larger one?
  • Scheduling problems?
  • Missed email?
  • Additional or new information that was not previously available?
  • Were incorrect assumptions made?
  • Could you have recognized bad assumptions earlier?
  • Did we have the right goals? Were we trying to solve the right problem?
  • Miscommunication or misunderstanding of the nature of the project?

Take the time to fully understand exactly how you screwed up.

2) Make A Plan

Before you confess your sins, first come up with two plans to solve or correct the problem. The last thing a supervising attorney wants to hear is that you made a mess and need their help to clean it up. My 4-year old son knows enough to clean up after himself when he spills something – so should you.

Work back to what you should have done in the first place. Think through the problem.

  • Can the task actually still be completed, albeit late?
  • Can you handle the matter with a phone call to opposing counsel?
  • Can you request an extension from the court?
  • Can the mistake be corrected with additional pleadings?

Come up with two plans for addressing the problem: a primary and secondary. For both plans, be sure to indicate a timeline to correct the mistake and any costs involved to the firm or client.

3) Don’t Dodge

Time to own up to your screw up. Contact your client or supervising attorney and tell them that a mistake has been made with matter X and that you need to discuss it with them. Once you’re in their office, don’t try and shift the blame or avoid responsibility for the failure. Completely own the problem.

  • Explain the situation leading up to the mistake.
  • Explain what happened.
  • Explain what you think were the root causes that led to the mistake.
  • Completely take ownership and apologize. Don’t shirk responsibility. Try: “This was my assignment and I screwed up on it. I did X instead of Y. I’m sorry it happened.”
  • Lay out your options for correcting the problem. Try: “Here are my thoughts on what can be done about this issue. We can try Option 1 [insert three-sentence executive summary] or Option 2 [insert three-sentence executive summary]. Option 1 involves…”

If you’re apologizing to your supervising attorney, be prepared for them to (rightfully) jump down your throat. More than likely, it is going to be their responsibility to explain to the client that a mistake has been made. As such, it is going to be their ass that gets chewed out by the client. So don’t be surprised when they want to dole out some ass chewing of their own. Acknowledge that you made a mistake, and press on the possible solutions to the problem. Your supervising attorney will be much more amicable if you present them with solutions instead of showing up and asking them to re-arrange their schedule to fix your screw up.

If you’re apologizing directly to client, there is no getting around the fact that they are going to be disappointed in you and the firm. If the mistake was significant, you should be prepared for the possibility of losing the client. Just stick to the plan of owning the problem and laying out solutions for dealing with the situation. It’s likely the best bet for placating the client.

Dealing with mistakes is not fun or ideal, but it is part of the practice. Better to have a plan to deal with mistakes on hand instead of flailing about when it happens.


Keith Lee practices law at Hamer Law Group, LLC in Birmingham, Alabama. He writes about professional development, the law, the universe, and everything at Associate’s Mind. He is also the author of The Marble and The Sculptor: From Law School To Law Practice (affiliate link), published by the ABA. You can reach him at keith.lee@hamerlawgroup.com or on Twitter at @associatesmind.

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