• Sardonic Solicitor

Own up to your mistakes: Lawyers' confessions

Updated: Jan 3

You must resist the temptation to stick your head in the sand, cover-up or lie about your mistakes. Face the music, take your medicine and confess all…it is the best approach

We all make mistakes; its how we deal with them that builds character

As the proverb goes, “to err is human”. That is a simple statement. But it is a beautiful summary of the conundrum we can face.

We all make mistakes. In every walk of life, people make errors daily. Sometimes multiple times in a day.

I have certainly learnt a great deal from my mistakes. A mistake stays with you. You can mull it over repeatedly. Whilst this can seem tortuous, I feel that such navel-gazing is beneficial. It is good to question a mistake. Ask yourself what you could have done differently. Consider the learning points. Most of all when you make a mistake, the best option is, to be honest. The mistake can usually be addressed if you act quickly. Even if it cannot be addressed, at least its effect can be mitigated.

When lawyers make mistakes there can be serious consequences. Of course, we are not doctors dealing with real life and death situations. But lawyers have fiduciary duties to their clients and the court, to be honest, and to act in their client’s best interests.

Scorched earth policy? Do not burn the evidence

This week, The Law Society’s Gazette magazine published a story about a lawyer who made a big mistake. In a moment of panic realising that she and her client had missed an employment tribunal hearing, she tried to bury the evidence. She threw the two tribunal notices, confirming the date of the hearing, into the locked confidential wastepaper bin.

We all make mistakes, but I have to say that is a shocker. I do have some sympathy with the lawyer. We have all felt that gut-wrenching dread when you discover a mistake. I have been there myself; you cannot breathe, your face goes red, your body heats up, and your heart is racing. You are not thinking clearly. It is hard enough to remember to breathe. Decisions made at that moment are rarely good.

That said, trying to destroy a court notice and then emailing the tribunal to say that the notice was not received is not the best option. In this case, the lawyer will be fortunate if the court finds that she did not act dishonestly. The case is ongoing. She has already lost her job but may face further sanction.

Confess, confess, confess!

My palms are sweaty now as I recall my error some 15 years later. My case is not as severe as the “bin lawyer”. Acting on a government infrastructure project, I released the wrong version of a contract to the consortia of international bidders. This might not seem like a terrible offence. However, by releasing the penultimate rather than the final version of the agreement, it may have given bidders an indication of how our client’s position changed on key risk allocation issues.

I was working 14-hour days at the time. Spinning four major projects simultaneously. On the project in question, I sent out a set of contracts. But the next day I realised that one of them was not the final version. The blood drained from my face, I felt sick. My heart was in my mouth, pumping like crazy. I bit the bullet and went next door to tell the partner. He was not impressed but glad that I told him right away.

I got on the phone to our co-consultant who was managing the procurement process. We uploaded the correct version of the contract. I updated the partner. He was pleased it was all sorted. I made no excuses. I took full responsibility. My partner could see I was a mortified. He was not impressed but was glad that I resolved the situation quickly. However, it was raised as an issue in my appraisal later that month.

Now, I triple check, quadruple check, before I click send on an email. Is it the right attachment? It is such a simple thing but can make a huge difference.

More war stories: time to face the music

My mistake pales into insignificance against some of the worst examples I have heard over the years. Funnily enough, these all involve trainees:

  • A trainee solicitor (equivalent to a first-year associate in the US) was asked to take a bundle of documents plus a settlement cheque to the court that afternoon. Somewhere during the walk between the office and the court, the settlement cheque fell from the bundle. The trainee arrived at court, submitted the document but could not find the cheque. They missed the court deadline. The client was prejudiced, and the trainee was fired.

  • A trainee in my old firm was working on a property sale and related purchase. The trainee went rouge and did not seek proper guidance from his supervisor. He was sure that it was all going to be easy. But on completion day, the trainee promptly completed on the purchase of the new property first. But the sale property had not been completed yet. The firm had to pay £500,000 of its own money that afternoon until the sale funds came through. Amazingly, he did not get fired! He managed to keep his job and make it all the way to partner himself 10 years later. He confessed his mistake as soon as it happened. Actions could be taken in time to fix his monumental cock-up.

  • My personal favourite, a cocksure trainee, at my old firm took a call from me, as an associate, and the partner on a deal. We outlined the deal which involved a share sale, release, and replacement of a share pledge. At the end of the call, the trainee nonchalantly said: “Thanks, that all sounds fairly straightforward”. After the call, the partner and I just looked at each other and burst out laughing. “Wow…he was cocky”. Sure enough, on completion day, the trainee calls the partner to say that we do not have the original share certificate. We needed the original to action the cancellation of the old certificate before the new one could be issued. The bank’s lawyers also said that they did not have the share certificate. At this point, my partner lost the plot and read the bank’s lawyers the riot act. He rebuked them for being unprofessional and not keeping proper records. He complained that this could jeopardise our client’s multimillion-dollar deal. A couple of hours later…ring, ring, ring. The trainee calls and explains that he found the share certificate in a folder on his desk. It had been there all along. It was filed with the handover notes from his predecessor. I wish I could have been in our London office to see the look on my partner’s face. He was glad that the trainee confessed but he still gave him an absolute bollocking. The partner also had to find an elegant way to tell the bank’s lawyers that we now “found” the missing share certificate. Eventually, the deal successfully closed. All is well that ends well.

So, remember, the next time you make a big mistake, tell the truth. Honesty is the best policy. Face the music and tell someone about your mistake. Do not try to hide it or cover your tracks. You will get rumbled … eventually.

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