Admitting your Mistakes – Risks versus Rewards

Mistakes and LawyersLawyers are not good at admitting our mistakes.  In fact, some lawyers will never admit that they made a mistake, no matter how blatantly obvious it is.  This issue has  a negative impact on our efforts towards building trust, so today we’re going to have a look at whether that is sage advice from a risk averse profession, or just us rationalising the free reign of our egos. The reasons lawyers give for avoiding blame are many and varied.  I think that sometimes we don’t even realise that we do it anymore.  Here are the highlights of why we often try to pretend to perfection:

  • Fear: for an extremely competitive profession we are (not surprisingly) extremely concerned that any mistake we make will be used against us as an excuse for the client to go to another lawyer or another firm.  As a result, we feel a need to create a perception that we are always right, always on top of things, and that our actions and advice are always justifiable (see more of what lawyers are terrified of here).
  • Embarrassment – for such a “grown up” profession we can be extremely precious about our own abilities.  Admitting that we can’t do something is hard enough, but admitting that we tried to do something and stuffed it is even harder.  Often shear embarrassment weighs against us making the decision to ‘fess up.
  • Competition: internal competition at some law firms can be fierce.  In a highly competitive market it’s easy to get distracted by the thinking that stuffing up a task will have the senior staff look down on you, the client report you to your supervisor, get you overlooked for a promotion, or at worst potentially fired.

These risks and concerns are not irrational.  In fact, some of them are disturbingly accurate.  However, for many reasons admitting your mistakes is by far the better course of action to take in these circumstances.

Build Trust

Remember how I’ve written about building trust in the past?  Well, how can somebody trust you if you are not honest with them.  This goes both externally and internally – your bosses need to know that you are going to honestly report any problems – don’t forget that until you are a partner you are playing with their money, not yours.  Likewise clients need to know they can believe you.  Constant excuses and scapegoating will get old very quickly.  If you haven’t done something don’t blame the email system – just admit it.  Clients are not stupid, and they know a bad excuse when they hear one.  If you’re going to engage with your client to build trust, then you need to embrace your humanity.

Taking Responsibility is Better than Not

President Bartlett in the series “West Wing” says, at one point, that “winners want the ball”.  So it should be with lawyers.  You see, the problem with not admitting mistakes is that inevitably they get found, and even more inevitably you get stuck into the trap of blaming other people for them.  Whether it’s the secretary, the “new system we just got” or the “office move” that caused the disruption, everything ends up being at fault except for you.  In the end, you turn into somebody who, quite simply, doesn’t take responsibility for anything.  All problems are somebody else’s.  The consequence is that you also end up as a lawyer that nobody will trust with a task, because the way you approach your practice is one of avoiding responsibility.  If you would rather be told what to do exactly and then to simply implement it – that’s fine, just don’t expect anyone to trust you with bigger and more important tasks.  Take responsibility – winners want the ball.

It’s the Right Thing to Do

If the others haven’t convinced you yet, then I would suggest that your ethical, moral and legal obligations to both your bosses and your clients is that you engage with frankness and candour.  Cute games, white lies, avoiding issues – these are not the ideals of any lawyer with sufficient backbone to survive in legal practice.  This isn’t even a grey area really – it’s quite clear what your obligations are on all fronts.  All that prevents most people is fear of the consequences. Remember that everyone who has come before you, and everyone who comes after, has stuffed something up to varying degrees.  It is not the series of successes that make or break us as lawyers, but how we hold on to our integrity when our failures become public.  Do we take responsibility?  Do we want the ball when things turn sour?  Or do we try and flick the ball off and hope that someone else will take the heat. That’s not a good lawyer.  That’s a coward. Be a better lawyer. Happy Lawyering!

  • I would to the “build trust” point that admitting a mistake will build trust faster for a lawyer than for other professionals. Attorneys are so bad at admitting mistakes that doing so really allows one to differentiate him or herself from other attorneys.

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