07/02/2019 Reflecting on mistakes as a lawyer

Reflecting on mistakes as a lawyer

I was recently part of a large group that attended an expertly organised mock interview session at a leading City law firm. As part of this training, the participants were collectively asked the staple interview question: “can you give me an example of a time that you made a mistake?” Then, well… there was a surprisingly long silence.

I do not believe for one second that this reticence to respond reflects the fact that the participants had never made any errors. To divulge a personal clanger, I have visited that office multiple times and I still get so lost that I find myself taking a right turn via Narnia.

Rather, assuming my theory of these students’ unlikely infallibility to be correct, I contend that our collective delayed responses were a product of four internal considerations:

  • What type of mistake am I comfortable saying in a professional setting?
  • What level of self-reflection am I prepared to reveal?
  • What is the correct response to the mistake that my interviewees are looking for?
  • Trick question. Lawyers never admit liability.

I will let the pensive reader contemplate the above dilemmas. However, for those more eagerly awaiting the anecdote’s completion, I did eventually offer an answer.

My answer

To be truthful, it was a rather timid reply. I disclosed a story about a time that I failed to double-check all of the columns after making a bulk edit on Excel. The insight that I supposedly gained – in line with most recruiters’ advised STAR-based answering method (ie, assessing the situation, task, action and results) – concerned my need to have far more attention to detail in the future. This is especially the case before submitting client work.

Yet I believe my answer was intrinsically flawed. I would also contend that most replies to this question are not really that useful to the prospective future employer either. Even those that score exceptionally well under an interviewer’s assessment criteria (eg, by showing real personal growth) are realistically somewhat futile.

The reason that I suggest this is because my carefully filtered narration does not reveal the truth about my instinctive approach to any failure.

My answer was essentially intended to offer the employer an assurance. I implicitly suggested that because of my previous blunders, I would be able to spot – and therefore subsequently avoid – any future errors. The answer notably sidestepped revealing how I would really react when, despite all my best endeavours, I make a mistake in the future.

You are going to make mistakes

As a lawyer, especially a junior lawyer, you are inevitably going to make mistakes. A diligent solicitor will embrace safeguarding systems, proofread multiple times, research law as thoroughly as possible, seek guidance from mentors and take steps to mitigate or insure the risk. Yet despite this protection, during your career, you will certainly be at fault for an oversight.

For example, people miscommunicate, elections produce unexpected results, personal life problems hit you at inconvenient intervals, technology breaks and the law is interpreted differently by modern judges. Elsewhere, your client’s priorities may abruptly change, leaving you unprepared.

Trust me on this: there is no panacea that will prevent you from one day having your hands on the basin, eyes staring towards the mirror, cold water running, embracing the difficult reality that you may have messed up.

At best, your embarrassment may be confined to a minor error – a misspelt client name in an email, for instance. However, there is a possibility that it could be a serious error of judgement – even one that finds you on the phone to the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the insurers.

So what should my answer be?

This does not mean that you are without agency though. What every lawyer can control is their reaction to making a mistake. Your reaction needs to be based on a sense of integrity.

The choice to show integrity is the only certainty that you can offer. Take ownership and let the relevant people know of the problem that you have caused. By all means, provide solutions and offer suggestions for how you can rectify the setback yourself. But above all, you must ensure that you have demonstrated integrity.

The above advice is the view of Chris Hargreaves from the Tips for Lawyers YouTube channel. His video “100% guaranteed to stuff up” should be compulsory viewing for those seeking to enter the legal profession. I thought his inspiring and advised response to this scenario of making a mistake was well worth sharing here.

Why integrity?

Integrity is ultimately what employers are looking for in the mistake interview question – more than a sense of initiative, more than attention to detail, even more than problem solving.

Showing that you are prepared to own up to your mistakes demonstrates that you can be trusted. A lawyer can keep up their hard-earned ‘trusted adviser’ status only if everyone that they delegate work to upholds the same trustworthiness.

It is difficult to be that person

I am not going to pretend that prioritising integrity when you have made a mistake will be easy. In a competitive corporate world, where ambitious individuals have been known to cover their backs to prosper, you may be a fool not to mirror that technique.

In addition, for many solicitors, revealing a professional blemish (when everyone else seems pristine) may seem like madness to your partnership prospects. Not to mention that revealing the error could expose other individuals who may now be unfairly subject to job losses.

Getting away with it

Further, the unlikeliness of detection may cause you to feel that the risks outweigh the returns. So… logically you should ignore the error? Where do I need to sign for that Bahamas holiday bonus then? But the thing is… you will know that your slip-up remains unresolved.

Many brilliant lawyers and ex-lawyers that I speak to refer to a mistake that they made in a contract from years past. This mistake still occasionally causes them to have nightmares. Nonetheless, if errors get exposed too late, the consequences are often even more destructive than any individual initially feared. For example, just look at the newsworthy accountancy errors that are currently bringing down established businesses.

Conclusion

Therefore, when you have made a mistake, do focus on integrity. It will show your reliability to the team. Likewise, my meandering experience suggests that admitting to others that you are lost is by far the best method to find the right way out. Finally, personal integrity really is the only answer to a mistake scenario question that you can learn to actually guarantee as a lawyer. 

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