Diary of a busy practitioner, juggling work and family somewhere in England
Recently I have been trying to write some fiction. You know, between the job, the kids, the blogging and the pandemic. Anyway, I was writing about a character’s feelings after she made a mistake at work, and immediately I was transported back to several points in my career where things have gone a bit skewiff. I hope it is a reflection on the standard of my writing, but I felt thoroughly miserable. Like waking up after a vivid dream, I had to keep reminding myself that I hadn’t made a mistake. This time.
I have blogged before about a mistake I made as a trainee - forgetting all about TUPE in the course of the sale of a fish and chip shop.
On another occasion, I distributed an estate not realising I hadn’t paid the funeral bill.
Quite recently, in the avalanche of emails following my return from annual leave, I missed an email with a deadline by which the other side were going to issue proceedings, and I only saw the email after the deadline. The other side did issue proceedings, when we would probably have settled if I had read the email in good time and taken my client’s instructions.
On another occasion, IT failing me, I sent a first version of a long letter to an opponent, rather than the substantially amended version after a change of instructions. As the opponent read out deleted passages of the letter on the phone to me, I felt like George Banks looking up his chimney trying to work out how Mary Poppins could possibly be holding the burnt letter seeking a nanny with rosy cheeks and no warts. At this moment I did something very human, and very un-me-like. I hung up the phone, pretending there was something wrong with the line, to give me time to think. For the next twelve months, until the matter was settled, I was continually being asked by my opponent why we had sent the letter and then immediately changed our position (in a quick follow up letter). My clients weren’t too happy either.
These are just a selection off the top of my head. The thing that all of these mistakes have in common is that I didn’t amputate the wrong toe, which is something that did happen to a client of mine. To put it another way, we all survived to tell the tales, and I am (possibly) a better lawyer for it.
The first piece of advice I was given as a trainee was to tell someone straight away if you have made a mistake. I don’t actually do this. First, I spend ten minutes going hot from my feet to my head, then cold and clammy. I then Google how much money I might make from knitting for a living (Google’s answer is always the same - 'you are rubbish at knitting'). Then, I work out how much equity we have got in our house and how small a house we would have to move to in order to not have a mortgage. The answer is that we would have to get rid of at least one of the children, which then leads to my next question of how much cash selling one would raise us. Once I have been through all of this, and realise I will have to remain in my current post at least til, say, the end of the day, I speak to someone.
I find it useful to start with the words 'I have made a mistake and I think it is best that you accept my resignation straight away'. In other words, 'I feel utterly terrible about this, and I need your help and kindness, and maybe I am over-dramatising this but I am really not sure'.
This is the thing, you see, especially when you are new to the job. You don’t know if a mistake is catastrophic or not. This is where sharing the problem helps. Once as a trainee in the conveyancing department, I got into bed on a Friday night and suddenly started worrying that I had exchanged contracts on a purchase but couldn’t remember if I had sent the deposit to the seller’s solicitors. Did this matter? Could I do it on Monday? Would I be struck off over the weekend? Eventually, at about midnight and knowing it was the only way I would get some sleep, I text my boss explaining the situation to him. He text straight back 'Deposit was held to order. Go to sleep'. Just like that, the problem was no longer a problem.
The person you speak to will not only be able to put the problem in perspective, they will also be able to help you work out an action plan, and support you in putting this plan into effect. I cannot stress enough what I am about to say next. If your team leader/management do not do this, you need a new job. Unless you are making the same mistake over and over (in which case consider the knitting) it is absolutely unacceptable for you to be reprimanded, or spoken down to, or left unsupported. Rest assured that if this is the reaction you get from your boss, it is them in the wrong job and not you.
The other reason you need to share the problem is that the longer you hide it the worse it will get. How many times have we seen articles in the Gazette about young solicitors getting reprimanded for hiding their mistakes? It is tough, because we are encouraged to be confident and firm in our approach to advice-giving and negotiating, but we have to ensure this doesn’t turn into arrogance - we need to be prepared to say 'I was overworked and I am sorry that I made a mistake'.
With humans doing the work and not robots, there will be mistakes. I know the buck stops with us, as fee earners, but in my experience mistakes are often made in part by the team around us, or the lack thereof. Keep on top of this. Keep on top of the training needs of your administrative team and say if the IT isn’t working effectively for you. Say if you are taking on too much new work and you are worried you won’t be able to juggle it all.
And if all else fails, because often it does, this is exactly why we are insured.
*Some facts and identities have been altered in the above article