“It’s simple but difficult,” he said, “just be honest.”
I must have looked confused because he explained what he meant. He told me that, of course, he expected me to be honest in my dealings with others and the court and to comport myself with the rules of professional responsibility. This is easy to do most of the time, he said.
The key is to maintain that honesty when it’s tough. He proceeded to share with me a time when he let a statute of limitations run on a case where the prospective plaintiff had already retained him.
“I blew it,” he said, “just completely forgot about their case. It was a bad mistake.”
He said that he reacted at first by trying to think of ways to get the case into court and correct his error and then searched himself in vain for a way to blame someone else. This was only fleeting, he told me, because he knew that he was the only one responsible. He had the clients come in for a face-to-face meeting and told them honestly that he made a huge error and had lost their “case” for them before it even got started.
One of the things that scares me most about being an attorney that handles litigation (and by scares me, I mean actually wakes me up in the middle of the night and leads me to go turn on my computer to check deadlines) is the possibility that something I do —or do not do, as the case may be — could be incredibly detrimental to a client. It could cost them money they don’t want to spend. It could mean they will fire me and hire another attorney. It could mean that I’ll embarrass myself in front of the court and other attorneys.
Inevitably, though, regardless of how many times I proofread each pleading and letter, there have been times when I have made errors.
In fact, shortly after my talk with this attorney and shortly after I began my career, I drafted a complaint based upon a template someone else had sent me. The only thing was, I forgot to change the facts. I sent it to another attorney to review, who read it and immediately called me into his office. He handed me the document and asked me to read it over.
When it became clear what I had done, I knew how that first attorney had felt — I searched for some other person, thing, circumstance to blame all the while knowing it was my error. After a few minutes, I took a deep breath and I walked into his office with the complaint in hand.
“I blew it,” I told him. “This was my error and I’m sorry.”
He smiled a little, told me understood and told me that he didn’t ever want it to happen again.
As my practice has developed over the years, there have been times when I have made errors. They are always difficult to admit, but I’ve found that admitting them honestly and as timely as possible to colleagues, clients, and even referral sources changes the way that those errors are evaluated. People, in my experience, really respect the honesty and understand the difficulty in admitting the error, especially when they know — because of their own business, usually, and the complex nature of what attorneys sometimes do — that it would have been just as easy (or even easier) to attempt to fudge a little, blame the court or the jury or some other, uncontrollable factor.