As attorneys, our mistakes have consequenc- es that can dramatically affect not only our clients but our futures as practitioners. Some mistakes are dire, which require the advice of counsel and col- leagues. But most mistakes are not as consequential
and can be quickly fixed. I have made both types of mistakes, but have
been able to avoid serious problems for myself and my clients.
All of my time as a practitioner has been spent as a trial attorney
focusing on personal injury matters. I work independently, managing
a number of cases from conception through verdict. on one hand, this
provides freedom with associated
experience, and on the other, there
is strict accountability and responsibility for outcomes.
What to do when you make a
mistake as a young lawyer? As we
were indoctrinated for three-plus
years, “it depends.” It depends on
the severity of the mistake and the
potential consequences, both intended and not. The following are
my thoughts on what to do when you
make a mistake that is on the bigger
end of the scale.
There is only one thing to do if
you believe you have made a big
mistake: You need to stop. Put down
the pen, log off the email, and hold
the phone calls. This is much more
difficult than it seems. Do not try and immediately fix the situation.
More often than not, you will compound your problem. I recently
made what a seasoned opposing counsel called a big mistake. My
immediate reaction was to email a response, make a phone call, and
prove my point that I was correct. This would likely have compounded my problem and may have led to not only issues with my case, but
more importantly, my reputation.
After you have stopped and disconnected, ask for help. I like to
think that I am going to be a great lawyer with a long list of accolades
and accomplishments, but honestly, as of now, I am simply a second-
year associate trying to stay above water. When these situations arise,
you need to reach out. There are many places to start. I begin with
fellow practitioners who will refrain from judgment and give candid
advice. This may be someone within the office or a trusted colleague
outside the firm. When asking for advice, do not shade the facts.
Make sure the attorney knows you are seeking advice and secure the
attorney-client privilege. Look to the RPcs with regard to disclosure
of client confidences when appropriate.
Remember, there is also an ethics Line
(206-727-8284) through the Bar Association that will help point you in the right
direction. If you do not have a mentor, I
would recommend seeking one.
With regard to my big mistake, I
sought advice from a few individuals,
both attorneys and non-attorneys. The
attorney, whom I seek out often, was able
to give candid advice and see the issue
from a number of angles, all of which I
could not. I was stuck on why I was right.
We spoke about strategies and adopted
a plan of action. I had myself so worked
up over the issue that I could not think
straight. I was worried and embarrassed.
The attorney calmed my nerves and saw
through the smoke.
Regularly, I meet with my father-in-law, who we will refer to as “John,”
on Friday mornings and discuss much
more important things like marriage,
religion, and taking care of his daughter. our meeting happened to fall on
the morning after my big mistake. He
told me a story about a colleague he
competes with on a regular basis in
sales. The competitor accused John of
undercutting a deal and overstepping
the line. I am sure his gut reaction was
to get on the phone and initiate a war;
however, he took the slightly higher path
and stepped back to analyze the situation. John explained his thought process
Don’t Make It Worse than It Needs to Be
by Ashton k. Dennis
Do not try and
immediately fix the
situation. More often
than not, you will
compound your problem.