Dan Harper is vice president, corporate counsel and secretary for Océ North America, Inc., a Canon Group Co. He is also president of the Chicago Chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel. The views expressed herein are the opinions of the author and do not reflect the position or viewpoint of Océ North America Inc., Canon Inc. or any of the Océ or Canon companies.
“A man (or woman) must be big enough to admit his mistakes, smart enough to profit from them, and strong enough to correct them. “
John C. Maxwell
A source of great discomfort for many people, especially lawyers, is to admit error. As lawyers, we often look for someone to blame when something goes wrong. We work hard to find the root cause of the problem. We do this for several reasons, among them: (1) to assess responsibility and accountability (usually financial) so that the “wrong” can be made “right”; and, (2) to ensure that the same mistake is not repeated. But what happens when your investigation concludes that you caused the problem or made the mistake? How many of us are man or woman enough to step up to the plate and take our due, at whatever expense to our career or personal life?
We are not paid to make mistakes. We are paid to avoid them. Lawyers live in a grey world where there is usually no course of action that is 100 percent risk free. Rarely are we involved in a decision that gives us the option of “no risk” versus “certain risk.” Inherent in the practice of law is the possibility that a minor risk will be realized. In such cases, clients look for blame, and it is often the lawyer to whom they look first. This is a hazard of our profession and should be avoidable by fully informing our clients of the risks involved in taking certain actions over certain other actions, and of course, documenting that advice for later reference if needed.
However, what does one do if a real mistake is made and you are the cause? In my opinion, the best practice is to fess up and admit when you are wrong about an issue and move on. Being upfront and honest about how the mistake was made and the circumstances surrounding it gives you credibility and ensures your good reputation with your client. This is very practical, but difficult, advice to both give and to follow. However, there is terrific upside. The most important positive long term benefit is that your client will learn to trust you more. If you can admit that you made a mistake in a certain circumstance, your client will believe you and trust your judgment the next time because she knows that you are not trying to hide anything from her or to simply make yourself look good.
Another reason to be upfront is that the people with whom we work on a daily basis are very smart – smart enough to figure out if the intention driving your finger pointing is to focus attention everywhere but upon yourself. They will eventually figure out where the problem originated at which point you will either be immediately out of a job, on your way out of a job, or effectively distrusted to the point where you can no longer perform your job effectively. A friend of mine told me about an interview he had with the CEO of his company. The CEO told him that the company is very leanly staffed and if you make a mistake, own up to it and move on – but do not try to hide it because there is nowhere to hide and that it will be discovered sooner or later. This same friend told me that there have been a couple of times when he has gone to his boss and said, “I screwed up.” He said, “It isn’t easy to do but easier than I thought it would be before I started the job.” This lawyer has clearly established himself as a trusted advisor in the company and has developed a relationship with his supervisor that allows this to occur. Much is to be said for the supervisor who recognizes that people do make mistakes and that allowing them to come clean is a positive approach to dealing with errors and the steps necessary to correct them.
The first step in Maxwell’s advice is to admit the mistake, first to oneself and second to the people to whom you are responsible. A mistake usually leads to wisdom. A typical lawyer will then work very hard to correct the mistake (and no doubt succeed in correcting it). In the end, you will be a better, smarter, more trustworthy attorney.
“No one who conceals transgressions will prosper, but one who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.”