I hate to tell you this, but as a new attorney, you will make mistakes. In fact, you will make your share of them. No matter how smart you are, or how well your firm trains you, or how closely you are supervised, you will do something wrong from time to time. When you do, its your job to right the wrong. You do that by doing the following:
Don’t brush it under the rug. When you make a mistake it is tempting to hide it from the partner’s view in hopes that it never gets discovered. Don’t ever submit to this temptation. Not only is it dishonest, it can make a small problem into a great big one. That mistake you made today may be one that can be addressed and rectified today. Ignore it, however, and it may grow, and infect the entire case, and the day may come when it’s too late to rectify it. Like a cancer, if diagnosed and treated early, a mistake is often treatable. If ignored, it may grow and spread and damage everything in its path.
Size up the situation. Was a mistake really made, or do you simply think you made one? Before blaming yourself, think through whether a mistake was made at all. If you did make a mistake, consider how big of a mistake it really is. That mountain you’re worried about may only be a molehill. Generally panic sets in when you make a mistake, your imagination gets the best of you and you start planning what life will be like after you get fired. Stop, take a deep breath and rest assured that things will work out. Even if it turns out your mistake was a big one, know that things still will work out.
Think through solutions on how to rectify your mistake. There are few mistakes that cannot be undone. Think through the various options that are available to help you clean up any mess you may have created. This is the time to speak to your mentor at the firm and seek his guidance on how to make things right. Also, it may take more than simply thinking or talking through the problem to come up with an answer. You may have to do some research to find the answer you are looking for.
Face the music. Once you know the scope of your mistake and have devised a way or two or more on how to fix it, go to the partner in charge of that file and tell him what you did and how you plan on fixing it. He will appreciate you owning up to your mistake, even though he may be upset that you made it. He will also appreciate that you have thought of different solutions, even though he is annoyed he has to take up his time to address your mistake.
Your boss gives you assignments to take problems off his plate and give them to you. When you make a mistake, you have managed to not only give him back the problem he gave you, you have managed to make it bigger. The least you can do is come up with a game plan to resolve the new problem you created.
Discuss how best to rectify the mistake. After you’ve presented the partner your proposed solution to your mistake, talk through how best to address the problem. Again, the partner may not think the problem is a major one. Conversely, he may think it is much worse than you think it is. Either way, you need to have a heart to heart to come up with a solution.
Learn from the mistake. Whether it is a big or small mistake, learn as much as you can from it. Maybe you need to learn to take more time when researching an issue. Perhaps you have to learn to probe more deeply in deposition. Whatever the lesson is, take it to heart and learn from it.
Maturity as a lawyer is owning up to your mistakes, figuring out how to deal with them and letting your boss know about the mess you got him into and how you plan on getting him out of it.