The View from Behind the Woodshed

Two weeks ago I was absolutely humiliated in front of my client and about twenty other people in a courtroom setting. There was also a tape recording of the event, so my 5 minutes of suckitude is now recorded for posterity.

I won’t go into the details of what went down; suffice it to say that another attorney was able to demonstrate to a lot of people that I am a fairly new attorney and that I was completely out of my element that day. It was awful, but I know that humiliation is just going to be one of those costs of doing business as a new attorney.

While it certainly wasn’t one of my finest hours, I feel like I handled it as well as I could have. Here’s a few things you can do to minimize the dolorous beating you will inevitably take at some point as a newbie.

It’s Too Late for CYA

When you are mid-beatdown, preventative measures like excuses will get you nowhere. If you are already being taken to task for not knowing what you should know, starting in on the whole “Naw, See… Cuz’ what had happened was…” routine just adds fuel to the fire. Gene Hackman said in Crimson Tide, “I can’t stand save-asses…” and I think that that is pretty representative of how people in authority feel. Whether you are being dressed down by a judge or your boss, the absolute worst thing you can do besides throwing up everywhere is to try to explain away your mistakes.

One of the most┬ádamaging excuses that people make is the classic “throw somebody else under the bus” maneuver. Do not do this under any circumstances. Blaming a colleague or paralegal shows that you have no responsibility or control over your work. It also shows that you lack class and leadership. It’s a tempting and natural tendency sometimes, but it accomplishes nothing. It also creates resentment in the “busee” if it gets back to them.

Take Your Medicine

When you are getting admonished for making a mistake, it’s tempting to get combative and defensive. There’s a little voice inside you that says, “you don’t need to take this reprimand, you’re a professional, you’ve done this and that and this…” You tell that voice to shut up. Someday you’ll show the world that you’re an awesome attorney and that you’re incredible at doing whatever, but that day is not today, my friend.

On the one hand, while you shouldn’t have to endure insults and personal attacks, you have to realize that a lot of efforts to stick up for yourself mid-dressdown just make for a more combative environment. And if you are already in the wrong, you should be doing all that you can to defuse the situation.

Learn From It

After I got throttled in front of everybody, I used it as a learning opportunity. I learned that I need to be a little more prepared before showtime. I learned that the field in which I am practicing has a few more nuances than I had previously assumed. And as painful as this experience was for me, I walked away from it with a positive feeling because I knew that I would never walk into a similar situation as poorly prepared as I was. So, advantage White, I guess.

And I think that that’s the best that you can do. If you are a new attorney—especially if you are a new solo—you are going to look stupid at some point. Find a way to minimize and capitalize. Take your lumps and walk away; and when it’s all over, make sure that it never happens again.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mdconnell/5206443585/)

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  • http://flanderslawfirm.com Joe Flanders

    Thanks for the post. I appreciated your honesty. I have had several situations just like the one you described in the past. You are absolutely right: don’t blame others, don’t make excuses, and learn from it. I think a lot of young attorneys (like me) can learn from this post.

  • laurie

    Great article! Lots of wisdom and maturity- something we could all use more of.

  • als

    Terrific post. We’ve all been through those moments as lawyers. Your thoughts are especially good because as a lot of people can tell you, these things can happen whether you’re in your first, fifth, or 50th year of practice. I’m in my fifth, and recently I had a situation where I was arguing MILs knowing that the case was about to settle and having been instructed by the client not to bill time preparing. Most of the issues were easy. One issue required some real thought and research (which I wasn’t getting paid to do, so I didn’t do it). In the middle of getting multiple probing questions from the judge, I finally had to simply concede that his questions were good and I didn’t know the answer. Nothing judges hate more than obvious mindless rambling.

    You’re an excellent writer. You’re thoughtfulness, self-reflection, and humility will continue to take you far.