There is nothing in this world quite as certain as the fact that lawyers are 100% guaranteed to stuff something up during their legal careers. It’s not a nice thought, nor is it a nice experience.
Welcome to the Land of Totally Stuffing Up
Today I wanted to talk about really the only guarantee that you’ve got in your legal career: you’re going to stuff up.
It is absolutely guaranteed, and I would love to give you, if I could, the “Five Steps to Not Stuffing Up” or the “Seven Things You Must Do After You’ve Stuffed Up”, but the reality is that there isn’t such a thing, and I want to be authentic and real. I also want you to start to appreciate that despite all of the strategies and tactics that I might lay out for you, there are some things which are just bad.
You’re going to have bad days, and some of the worst days you’re going to have in your legal career are going to be the ones where you have stuffed something up.
You’ll know it when you get there – you start to get this feeling – and if you’ve felt it you know what I’m talking about, and if you haven’t yet, then I look forward to your story of when you get this feeling for yourself because it really is very difficult to describe.
It Starts as a Nagging Suspicion
It starts as this nagging suspicion. Frequently you get this nagging suspicion at some horrific time in the middle of the night – one o’clock in the morning, two o’clock in the morning – you wake up and you think, “I didn’t do that thing,” or “I forgot to correct that thing,” or “I’ve just sent a privileged document to the other side”. Whatever it is that’s happened, and it’s quite terrible when that happens because you can do nothing about it at that time.
There have been occasions where I have perhaps logged in at 11 o’clock at night or 12 o’clock at night to work to try and check something that’s keeping me awake.
Some lawyers have notepads next to their bedside table so that they can take notes and get things out of their head at least onto paper, and then you can start to, hopefully, get to sleep once you know or have purged those things out of your head.
But that doesn’t necessarily help in this kind of situation because there’s this gradual dawning, and then what you do of course because you’re not sure at that point. You’re not sure whether you’ve actually stuffed up, but you think you might have.
Confirmation Comes Soon Enough
And then of course, you’re going to go and you’re going to find out have you actually stuffed up. You’re going to search through your files, or you’re going to look at your file notes, you’re going to check your time entries, you’re going to look at what was sent and what wasn’t.
Whatever it’s going to be, that’s probably going to be the first thing you do.
There’s a pretty good chance you’re going to skip breakfast, there’s a pretty good chance you’re even going to skip your morning coffee.
You’re going to race into work at the earliest available opportunity, and you’re going to go to your desk, and you’re going to try and find the answer without giving everyone around you the impression that you’re freaking out.
The Stuff Up Scale
So, by now, some of you are going, “Ah, I’ve done that. I know exactly what you’re talking about.” And others of you are going, “I’m not entirely sure about this, Chris”.
The reason is, of course, that within the overall realm of stuffing up, there is a scale isn’t there? On the one hand you might stuff up because you forgot to put a full stop at the end of a sentence, or you called someone Ms. instead of Mr., or you got their name wrong, or there was a typo in your letter.
These sort of things are mildly embarrassing, potentially, if anyone even notices them, but by and large are going to have no negative impact.
Somewhere in the middle of the scale are things that are a bit beyond embarrassing. It might be actual errors, but though these are ones that can be corrected perhaps by sending a further letter because nothing has actually happened that has rested upon them. So maybe they are correctable, and you’re going to get a wrist slapping from your boss (who may or may not have picked it up themselves), but ultimately beyond a bit of embarrassment, and probably a little bit of argy-bargy, there’s a reasonable chance that nothing will in fact go horrifically wrong.
Then at the worst end of the spectrum are the things that have happened about which you can do absolutely nothing. The bird has flown the coop. The thing has already gone wrong, and you see this of course in the stories that you get, people who have missed timelines and then are unable to call the things back together. You see people who have missed limitation period dates, for example, and are unable to commence proceedings, things like that.
And of course, sometimes they go horribly badly, sometimes these mistakes actually don’t cause any real damage to anyone, and sometimes they do. Sometimes those people know about it, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they care, and sometimes they don’t.
As part of our overall look at this 100% guarantee for your legal career of stuffing up in some way, I think it’s really important to acknowledge that that is probably going to happen at some point.
It’s Usually Not a Legal Issue
Most often this isn’t actually on a legal issue. Sometimes it is, but often the stuff up is actually on other things.
- you were busy;
- you forgot to do something;
- the calendar system failed;
- you forgot to put a bring up date.
Whatever it might be, these are often the issues that come up that resulted in the error in the first place.
So, What to Do? You’re Going to Worry no matter What I Say
So with that in mind, what do we do? We get to the office, we see how bad the mistake is, and that feeling in our stomach either alleviates because we’ve realized that the error is not so bad as we first thought, or perhaps it’s easily remediable, but perhaps we get to this point that we have realized it’s an unfixable error.
There is no nifty list post that I can do, there is no handy set of tips to guide you through how to manage the situation because I think having an appreciation for just how bad you’re going to feel is worthwhile, and I think it’s actually a valuable emotion to feel as well.
I think it’s that emotional response that tells you that you’re invested in your career, because what you can start to do is you can start to ask, “Why am I freaking out as much as I am?”, “Why am I upset?”
“Is it because I maintain a high standard of professionalism and I don’t like the fact that an error occurred in my life?
“Is it because I’m worried about being fired?”
Maybe it’s because you’re worried about getting sued, maybe it’s because you’re worried about the ramifications, but this worry is going to start to come, and you’re going to play through all the scenarios, and you’re going to do a million things, and no matter what I say, you’re going to do those things anyway.
So I could tell you not to worry, and that would be both hypocritical (because I have worried about these things) and it would probably be pointless because you are going to worry.
You’re going to worry about what’s going to happen, and you’re going to go through the ramifications and you’re going to have “the conversations” in your head.
You’re going to say, “How did this occur?”, “Was it actually my fault?”, “Was it someone else’s fault?”, “Did someone tell me to do the wrong thing?” “If so, how do I demonstrate that?”.
Did your boss tell you to do the wrong thing? Maybe that’s an issue, but hopefully, what you’re going to come to is a realization that this is a process that you are going to have to work through, and it’s one of the guaranteed things that comes along with the guarantee that you’re going to stuff up, which is that you’re going to have to deal with it at some point in your life.
The One Thing you Must Do After Stuffing Up
All I wanted to do is to encourage you in one area: your integrity.
Because along with the 100% guarantee of stuff up comes a choice: what do you do? Are you going to take responsibility for it, if indeed it was your responsibility?
Are you going to try desperately to make it someone else’s fault? Are you going to find a scapegoat? Maybe that person who’s left the firm – it can be their fault!
Maybe the junior lawyer, it can be their fault. Maybe the clerk didn’t do the research right.
Is it going to be your boss’ fault for not adequately supervising you?
Within all of those possible options, and some of them may be true, you’ve got to ask yourself, “Am I doing this out of a sense of integrity or am I doing this out of a sense of escapism?” – “Am I not prepared to accept the fact that I might have stuffed up?”
Does This Mean you Shouldn’t Be a Lawyer?
That’s a difficult question to ask yourself, but how you react to the realization that you’ve stuffed something up is the most important character trait that comes along with this issue, and it’s character traits that really tell you whether you’re cut out to be a lawyer or not.
The fact that you stuffed up does not inherently mean that you’re not cut out to be a lawyer, and it will be easy for you to tell yourself that.
Should I just pack it all in and go and serve cocktails on a Friday night?
Whatever you might be telling yourself, don’t internalize automatically the fact that you’ve stuffed up as a suitability issue.
However, how you react is a character issue, which does determine whether you’re fit for practice.
Are you going to be open about the situation? Are you going to take the hit? Because sometimes you need to.
I’m not saying you need to throw yourself under a bus in terms of your professional career.
What I’m saying is you need to accept your role and you need to be open and honest about your role in the error that occurred, because normally errors, of at least a significant magnitude, are not ones which stemmed from a particular individual thing or person.
Mistakes are Complex
Most errors of any magnitude are complex. They’re often made up of a number of different factors. There might be different reasoning and rationales and issues that have arisen, so within all of that, you have a choice.
You have a choice to maintain your integrity or not.
So often what we see in these horror stories is not the error, but the tale of what happened after the error.
Someone made a bad decision and they took money out of the trust account that belonged to someone else and they paid it into their mortgage because they were late on their payments because they were struggling because their kids were in school or whatever.
But then that client wanted their money out of the trust account and it wasn’t there anymore of course, so what the lawyer did was, rather than front up, they took someone else’s trust money to pay back the first person.
And then to pay back the second person, they took the third person’s trust money.
As you can see, the initial error, the initial poor decision, the initial thing that went wrong was compounded grossly, and that betrays a character problem.
That they succumbed to the fear of someone realizing that they had stuffed up.
Delivering the Bad News
Now, other examples, when you’re called upon to deliver the bad news, how are you going to deliver the bad news? Do you deliver the bad news at all? Do you just hope that it will go away? Do you not tell anyone? Do you really have an obligation to tell anyone?
Is this something that needs to be disclosed or not? And your gut, your conscience, your inherent reaction will give you the right answer. If you find yourself desperately trying to find a way out, then you already know that you’ve got a pretty good idea of what the answer is.
What’s Your Story?
None of us are perfect. None of us are even close to perfect. We try and maintain a profile of risk management, but you are going to stuff something up at some point.
That is the nature of humanity. That is the nature of being a person in a high pressure practice. But it’s how you react that really makes a lawyer or not.
So today in the comments what I want you to do is I want you to share your story.
How did you react when you stuffed something up? What did you do? What was your gut reaction? How did you feel? Did you get that tension in the pit of your stomach like I’m talking about? Did you get that feeling of absolutely futileness (which isn’t a word)?
Let us know your story in the comments – I look forward to your stories (don’t share anything confidential if you please…)