In Law Practice, Sweat the Small Stuff

When Marc asked me to take care of sending a waiver of service to counsel for PeerViews lawyer in the trademark lawsuit we filed, I figured it would be easy. Then I went ahead and screwed it up. It was a valuable reminder that, in law practice, you must sweat the small stuff, especially if you haven’t done it before.

How to send a waiver of service improperly

I checked Rule 4, downloaded the form and filled it out, put it in an envelope with the summons and complaint, and put the package in the mail. Here was the response:

This letter is to inform you that the Waiver of the Service of Summons is deficient and we are thus unable to accept service of such Waiver . . . .

Since opposing counsel did not explain how I screwed up, I asked. Her reponse was not much help:

Please provide complete and accurate service pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 4.

So I re-read the rule, took a look at what I sent, and decided I forgot to send a second copy of the waiver and a self-addressed, stamped envelope. I added those to the same stack of paper I sent before and tried again. And got this response:

The form we received yesterday is again incorrect as I am not “plaintiffs attorney.”

In short, her quibble was with a typo in a document that is available as a fillable PDF form on every federal court’s website. But whatever, I definitely screwed up. It was my typo. I emailed the fillable PDF version and finally got back the signed waiver. I breathed a sigh of relief and called it a lesson learned.

Lessons learned

First. Sweat the small stuff. In law practice, the details matter. Even seemingly simple tasks can be deceptively complicated. (Seriously, who knew it would be so easy to screw up a waiver of service?) it pays to double—or triple—check everything. The best attorneys I know approach every legal question as if it were a new one, even if they probably know the answer already. If you do this, you will often find the question was not as simple as it first appeared—but you won’t miss much.

Second. When you are doing something for the first time, you might as well be a first-year attorney, no matter how experienced you are otherwise. I have been a full-time civil litigator for about eight years, mostly in federal court. But even though I have handled plenty of federal cases, I had never done a waiver of service.

Mistakes happen. As long as you do learn, and as long as the mistakes can be corrected, that is how you learn—especially as a solo practitioner. But many mistakes can be avoided (or fixed) if you have a solid mentor and colleagues to consult.

Perhaps most important, do not try to hide your mistakes. Own them.

Third. Sometimes, cut opposing counsel some slack. There was no good reason—and nothing to be gained—by opposing counsel’s refusal to point out my errors when I asked. It was not a mistake that could help PeerViews win; it just resulted in unnecessary work on both sides.

When you can move things along by giving opposing counsel a little help, do it.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/fuschia_foot/1137365267/)

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  • http://www.coyelaw.com Wade Coye

    This anecdote shows that lawyers need to pay attention to details for many reasons, but what I noticed is the time that it took to deal with such a small mistake. Having to revise and resend documents more than once can really add up and drain you of time, which attorneys are rarely able to spare. Great lesson here, Sam.

  • http://smartbusinessrevolution.com/ John Corcoran

    Sam: This is incredibly candid of you to share your mistake. Too many lawyers are unwilling to admit ever making a mistake, out of fear of alienating clients or risking malpractice suits, and therefore come off as either conceited or incredibly stubborn. The reality is little mistakes can happen, as you demonstrated, and the key is to own up and learn your lesson so it doesn’t happen again.

    I also definitely agree it’s much better to simply cut your opposing counsel some slack. If the shoe was on the other foot, they would want the help. So it’s best to simply cut to the chase and save everyone a bunch of unnecessary work.

  • Jennifer

    Thanks for opening up about that. It’s a good reminder that lawyers are human and a great reminder to me about not beating yourself up for mistakes. Learn from it and move on. Also, a great reminder to never think you can be overly paranoid about getting it right.

  • Sadee Bear

    Being a lawyer may be tedious, but at least it’s better than being a hotel maid: http://lawblog.legalmatch.com/2011/05/20/redefining-the-us%E2%80%99s-diplomatic-immunity-policy-after-dominique-strauss-kahn/

    Less chance of sexual battery.

  • http://sidebarforplaintiffs.naomifein.net Naomi Fein

    As an ex-paralegal and now plaintiff, I applaud this post. The big-time lawyers I worked for admitted their mistakes and without embarrassment consulted friends about gnarly problems. But the lawyers who represented me in a case did not apologize for a couple of big mistakes. I switched law firms.
    Here’s a warning though: check and double check the work that your staff members do. I was unhappy about the laziness of a couple of lawyers I worked for, one of whom failed to check a pile of discovery documents I’d compiled and put on his desk (with a log). He simply sent them out. When he learned that one document never should have been sent, he blamed me. He was one major reason I no longer work for lawyers.

  • http://www.stock-loss-blog.com Stock Loss Blog

    Excellent post Sam. This shows that it is better to strictly abide by the rules for everything. Although, in my experience, it was a bush league move for opposing counsel not to accept service the first time. They can easily make a copy and send it back.

    Service is about notice. Counsel had plenty of notice the first time, they just wanted to waste your time.