Let’s face it — no matter what our profession, we all screw up from time to time. Obviously, some people’s screw ups (e.g., surgeons) are more dire than others’ (e.g., circus clowns). Paralegal screw ups probably fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum.
Nonetheless, no matter how good we are, how experienced we are, how educated we are, or how confident we are, we’re all going to make a mistake at some point in our career.
That sounds a bit flippant, doesn’t it?
The truth is, when faced with our own screw ups, the feelings of anxiety, guilt, and shame can be overwhelming. How do you deal with all this when you’re the one who made the mistake?
That’s what we’re here to talk about today. Let’s dive in.
Before you screw up
Even though everyone is inevitably going to screw up at some point, we should all still strive to avoid professional mistakes.
One of the best ways to do that is to know where your vulnerabilities lie.
For example, if you are a relatively new paralegal, you might read up on the most common mistakes made by rookie paralegals. FYI, these include things like missing deadlines, giving legal advice, and mis-calendaring things.
Then, do whatever it takes to ensure that you are better at each of those tasks than other paralegals at your experience level.
To do this, you might seek out a more experienced mentor who can guide you through your early work experiences, or you could do a little off-the-clock studying to make sure your skills are up to par.
No matter how careful and amazing you are, however, you still might find that mistakes happen. So, let’s get to the heart of the matter and discuss what you should do in that circumstance.
#1: Assess the damage
This is a step you won’t see from a lot of commentators on the subject of professional mistakes. Most, in fact, will advise that you immediately tell a supervisor about what’s transpired.
That is great advice and it should happen – quickly – but as someone who has supervised hundreds of people throughout my career, I’m going to add another step to the process.
Once you realize you’ve made a mistake, the first thing you should do is fully assess the damage.
Let’s say, for example, that you’ve sent an email to someone other than a client that contains privileged information. This is obviously a huge mistake that needs to be addressed immediately. In this situation, before you go to your supervisor, you’ll want to be prepared with this information:
- The name and email address of everyone the email was delivered to;
- The time the email went out;
- The exact contents of the email and any attachments; and
- Any efforts you made to recall or retract the email (if any).
These seem like obvious bits of information, but you’d be surprised how often a conversation between an employee and supervisor goes something like this:
Employee: “I accidentally sent privileged information to people other than the client.”
Supervisor: “Who’d you send it to?”
Employee: “I’m not sure who all got it.”
This is an exceptionally frustrating conversation for the supervisor who now has to backtrack to figure out how bad the mistake is. Save them (and you) a lot of heartburn by having a full grasp of your mistake before you report it.
#2: Report the damage
Now is the time to tell your boss.
This is the hard part, right?
All sorts of negative thoughts might run through your mind. Will your boss yell at you? Will you get fired? Did you destroy the client’s case?
These are all perfectly natural fears, but beyond a harsh talking-to, most of them are unlikely to come to fruition.
The far greater infraction would be to hide the mistake from your boss. Sticking with the example of inadvertently disclosing privileged information, there are actually formal processes (on both sides) for dealing with that situation.
If you need to take a moment to breathe, do it. Just don’t wait too long. Your best bet is to go to your supervisor as soon as you realize that you’ve made a mistake and gathered the necessary information.
#3: Don’t try to fix it yourself
One very natural inclination most people have after making a mistake is that they want to “fix it.”
That’s certainly understandable, but when dealing with legal issues, it’s probably best not to try to fix the mistake yourself. After all, there could be serious implications to the way the mistake is handled.
This is another tip that is overlooked in most articles about making professional mistakes.
Within the legal realm, there are a lot of issues to consider before a mistake can simply “be fixed.”
Turning back to our inadvertent disclosure situation, for example, one needs to consider how the mistake will be addressed with the inadvertent recipients, opposing counsel, the client, and the court. There is a strategy to develop at every level, and the attorneys need to be the drivers of those strategies.
Moreover, chances are that your boss (or another senior person in the firm) has dealt with a mistake like yours previously. They’ve probably had successful outcomes, and they’ve probably handled things poorly (possibly even making the mistake worse).
Let their experience be your guide, and be prepared to accept their suggestions for fixing the mistake.
#4: Prevent future mistakes
Okay, so your mistake has been made and rectified.
If apologies are needed, give them with humility and sincerity. Don’t overdo it, of course, but at least give an apology that demonstrates that you understand what you did wrong.
More important than that, however, you should be prepared to offer your thoughts on how you will avoid professional mistakes in the future.
Don’t just offer meaningless platitudes here. Spend some time really thinking about your mistake in particular and how it could be avoided in the future. If it is a mistake that others could easily make, perhaps offer firm-wide procedures for avoiding that mistake.
Returning to our prior example, perhaps you could create a checklist to be followed any time privileged material is to be disseminated outside of the firm. Or you could suggest turning off the feature that auto-fills email addresses any time the first few letters of a person’s name are typed in.
#5. Forgive yourself
Whatever you decide to do, make sure that your “recovery” process involves forgiving yourself.
This can be tough, especially when you screw up big time and the consequences are more severe. It’s necessary, though. You can’t wallow in shame and self pity forever.
Own your mistake, then move on. The faster you forgive yourself, the sooner you’ll be able to get back to the stellar work you usually do.
Mistakes happen all the time.
Ultimately, your professional success hinges less on the fact of the mistake and more on the way in which you handled it.