Attorney or Umpire, We All Make Mistakes

Last week, it was front page news about how umpire Jim Joyce blew a call that cost Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game. After the game, Joyce admitted his mistake and apologized to Galarraga in person. The following day, Galarraga, when asked about Joyce’s apology, responded, “He couldn’t even talk, he was crying. I understand, nobody’s perfect.”

Making Mistakes

There’s a lesson to be learned from this incident for lawyers. “Nobody’s perfect.” Even the best lawyers make mistakes and sometimes those mistakes can have serious consequences for clients. However, as demonstrated by the “imperfect game,” it is how the people deal with the imperfection, that is most important.

What do you do when you make a mistake? Do you try to cover it up? Do you blame others? Do you admit the error, but attempt to minimize it by not being totally candid with the client? Or do you admit the mistake, accept the responsibility for it, fully explain the consequences to the client, apologize, and then do all that you possibly can to correct the mistake? Needless to say, of the four alternatives, one must do the latter.

As an initial matter, the first three could get you into trouble with your state’s ethics disciplinary officials. However, irrespective of the rules of professional conduct, the last alternative is the “right” and only thing to do. Many lawyers fear the consequences of behaving in that manner. We think we are perfect; we think our clients expect perfection; we fail to put the mistake in perspective.

Back to baseball. Within that world, Joyce mad a huge mistake, but both he and Galarraga handled it with class. The world did not come to an end. There were certainly more important matters on the front page that day such as the BP environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Consequences of Mistakes

Back to practicing law. Human beings make mistakes. Lawyers are human beings (I know there are some lawyer jokes that suggest otherwise). Lawyers make mistakes. The life of a lawyer is stressful enough; there is no need to add to that stress by somehow thinking that you cannot make any mistakes. You can and you will. And while I’m not that naïve to think that there are no clients who expect perfection and will be extremely difficult to deal with when you make a mistake, the reality is that many clients are like Galarraga. They realize that mistakes happen, respect honesty and humility, and place things in perspective. More often than not, clients can be more forgiving than you think.

Today’s lesson. Don’t assume you are perfect. Don’t assume your clients will react unreasonably when you are not. Life goes on.

(Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ieatwaffles/2481416932/)

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  • Great post. It’s great to have someone address what happens after you make a mistake because like you write…it’s going to happen.

  • A. Jackson

    When I first started practicing, I didn’t explain thoroughly enough the importance of getting certain documents to us timely in order for our expert to do a valuation of the opposing client’s business. The mistake was enough to require us to non-suit the whole divorce and start over.

    I went to my boss and explained that I was to blame because I didn’t adequately inform our client of the importance of receiving the documents timely, and I hadn’t followed up with her on the status of them. My boss just looked at me and said, “hell, it happens. Could be worse. Clients will be fine. I’m fine. Thanks for telling me, now go back to work.”

    And so back to work I went.

  • Legal beagle

    Great post.

    I am a lawyer and have made a mistake this week. I live in constant fear of making mistakes, and have a (probably irrational) belief that clients will expect no mistakes whatsoever. This blog is a very refreshing perspective, and just what I need to do.

  • TH

    This post is just as relevant and excellent now as it was when it was first posted. I just finished my first year of practicing, and it almost seems like it’s impossible not to make a mistake. It is really easy to think that we’re born perfect attorneys who never do anything wrong. Thank you for the reminder that sometimes, things just happen.