Most newly minted lawyers (and, probably, quite a few new professionals in other fields) have a touch of the "imposter syndrome," the sense that they really are not competent to serve as professionals and the persistent fear that they will make a serious mistake, which will somehow end their careers.
The truth, as one of my colleagues likes to say, is that junior lawyers are not likely to commit any mistakes so large, and so serious, that the "republic will fail," and their careers will lie in ruins. Most junior mistakes are relatively minor, and most can be corrected.
But a healthy sense of caution is appropriate, even at the most junior levels in the profession. It is possible to commit errors that can get you fired or worse. Here's a quick guide to some of the worst mistakes and some suggestions for how to avoid these potential pitfalls of practice.
COVER UP MISTAKES
Just as in Watergate and Monicagate and all the other scandals of memory, one of the worst parts of any wrong-doing is often the cover-up that occurs after the event. So too in a law firm.
You can (and probably will) send correspondence to the wrong address; or misbill an item of service or cost; or fail to complete all the forms required for some filing; or commit any one of dozens of other rookie mistakes. These are human errors (not to be encouraged, of course, and not to be repeated). But they are not venal sins. What is a venal sin (once you recognize that the error has occurred) is to keep the matter to yourself (perhaps hoping, desperately, that the mistake will somehow not be caught).
In this way, you greatly magnify the error. You may prevent, through inattention, any effective solution to the problem. Privileged or proprietary information may remain in the wrong hands, due to waiver from delay. A client may burn with resentment at perceived overbilling. A filing deadline may pass, harming the client's interests and, potentially, exposing the firm to liability.
Delay in admitting mistakes also gives your supervisors serious reason to question your character and judgment. In effect, if it is clear that you knew about an error and chose to do nothing about it, you suggest that you are "either a fool or a liar." Belated excuses that the error was really someone else's blame (the inattentive secretary or clerk, for example) also may compound the problem. You have responsibility for supervising these people. And your deliberate failure to report the error so that it can be rectified is the problem at that point, not the underlying error (no matter whose "fault" it was in the first place).
ABUSE THE STAFF
Most lawyers work hard, long hours in a large law firm. Most are under some degree of pressure (time constraints, uncertainty as to how to proceed, constant juggling of tasks). None of these conditions is an acceptable excuse for abusing the staff. Deliberately hurtful words (or worse, racist or sexist commentary), screaming tantrums and any form of inappropriate physical contact or intimidation have absolutely no place in a law firm. Offenders, no matter how green, risk much from engaging in such behavior.
A law firm is a community. Support staff talk among themselves. And they talk to the lawyers with whom they work. Do not whistle past the graveyard hoping that some outrageous incident will go unnoticed by your supervisors and firm management.
You may face a formal complaint (or worse, a lawsuit). But even if there is no formal manifestation of complaint, your reputation within the institution will be wounded, perhaps mortally. When support staff do not like you, they can make your work much harder (or simply refuse to work with you). And senior lawyers will inquire why it is that you, among all the other junior lawyers, somehow cannot get along with the staff. Again, assessments of your character and judgment are on the line.
BADMOUTH CLIENTS AND FIRM ADMINISTRATION
A law firm is not a gulag. A diversity of opinions about many aspects of life and the practice of law is, generally, tolerated and encouraged. Indeed, many lawyers find the collegial debate of views among peers in a law firm very stimulating.
But there is a difference between expressing differences of opinion and doing harm to professional relationships. Behind-the-back (and, especially, exaggerated or unfair) criticism of clients and firm leaders is dangerous. The impression that can be conveyed is that you do not have the courage to confront someone directly with your concerns. Your negative approach, moreover, detracts from any claim to be a "team player" looking for solutions that will help everyone perform better.
Again, do not delude yourself into thinking that your commentary will never get back to the objects of your derision. The grapevine is quite strong in most law firms. Often, the "telephone effect" of the re-telling of your comments may, actually, make them worse than you intended. Even if the object of your criticism never learns what you said, you damage your reputation by instilling doubt in the recipient of the criticism. All who hear your diatribes may think: "Goodness, if that's what John [or Jane] says about someone else, I wonder what they say about me?"
A FEW SIMPLE RULES
Most of what you need to know about getting along in the social setting of a law firm you probably (should have) learned in kindergarten. Consider just these few simple rules:
- If you're not sure how to behave, ask for help. Most of the time, a colleague, a supervisor (and surprisingly perhaps, often a staff member) can steer you toward what will be considered acceptable in a given situation.
- If you make a mistake (and, especially, if you think you've hurt someone's feelings), apologize and ask what you can do to rectify the situation.
- Learn to play nice. You don't have to become a Stepford associate, but you should be able to muster basic civility every day, in every encounter in a law firm. If you're just too grumpy to be nice, shut your door until the mood passes or go home and give it another try tomorrow. And if you blow your top at some point, re-read the prior rule (apologize).
Finally, a few words about the dangers of e-mail and alcohol (not, generally, used in combination, but each potentially dangerous in its own way).
E-mail, for example, offers quick, efficient communication, often permitting junior lawyers to "check in" with their supervisors, reporting progress and problems and asking questions where necessary.
But e-mail is an imperfect communication tool. It is subject to misinterpretation. Jokes and sarcasm do not translate well in print. And the tone of a message often can appear much harsher than the sender intended. When forwarded, moreover, e-mail often loses context, such that the reviewer (say, a senior administrative leader at the firm) may not have any sense of the intended good faith behind a note.
So, with e-mail, consider:
- Any angry or negative commentary (no matter how high or low the addressee) should, in most instances, be delivered personally (by an office visit, if possible, or by telephone, at least).
- Assume that everything you write by e-mail can (and probably will) be forwarded to others besides your intended recipient. Make sure that your message is clear, including the context. Consider how someone with no background in the matter might read your message.
- Resist the temptation to respond to "flaming" e-mail from a colleague or a client with your own nasty-gram. In many instances, what you received may have been sent in jest or in a temporary fit of pique (indeed, if you wait long enough, you might even receive an apology). By modeling professionalism in your own response, in most cases, you will return the dialogue to a higher plane.
Regarding alcohol, the rules are even simpler:
- Social occasions with colleagues and clients are business meetings, no matter how apparently casual the setting. Treat them accordingly.
- Do not drink to excess. If you do, excuse yourself and catch a cab home.
Everyone makes mistakes. Lawyers are no exception. What distinguishes a learning experience from a career-ender is whether you can focus on the words "professional responsibility." Act like a professional. Take responsibility for your actions.
Steven C. Bennett is a partner in the New York offices of Jones Day and author of "The Path to Partnership" (Praeger). The views expressed are solely those of the author and should not be attributed to the author's firm or its clients.