A few weeks ago, I received a call from a young associate working at a big East Coast law firm — she was near tears. “I just noticed a typo in a document we sent you,” she apologized. “I should have caught it.” She pointed out the typo, and I almost laughed. It was the smallest of typos. I thanked her for letting me know and spent a few minutes reassuring her that the typo would not impact the litigation. As I hung up the phone I found myself wondering why young lawyers can be so hard on themselves for the smallest of mistakes.
Granted my sample size is small — a limited circle of friends and colleagues — but the associate’s concerns were familiar to me. Since graduating from law school in 2008, I’ve received multiple calls from friends beginning their practice in Minnesota and beyond. These friends have agonized over mistakes ranging from a misspelling identified by opposing counsel to filing the wrong draft of a document with a court. And while it’s easy to counsel my friends to let it go and focus on their next task, I’ve caught myself similarly obsessing over such errors.
After spending a weekend working on an emergency research project, synthesizing case law and drafting a memo, the senior partner very delicately pointed out that I misspelled the client’s name throughout the memo circulated to our case team. This happened almost two years ago. I still want to curl into the fetal position when I think about it.
What is it about our profession that makes us aspire to perfection? It’s a chicken and egg question really — does the profession demand perfection, or did we become lawyers because we’re competitive perfectionists? I’m sure it’s a little of both. The law school curve demands distinguishing oneself in every possible way — every typo counts. In practice, I want to demonstrate perfection for clients who have the ability to select their counsel. But I also know myself. If I worked at McDonald’s, I would be anxious to wrap the hamburgers perfectly.
What to do? Of course my first line of defense is to eliminate typos and filing errors from my repertoire. I enlist my LAA to read my work, change the font and text size of a document when I proofread (it helps), and check to make sure that the last edit made to a draft is present when I sign the final version of a document (this tactic ensures that you’re filing the right version). But, of course, it’s not enough. In a profession where emergencies and sleep deprivation are both routine occurrences, mistakes happen.
My second line of defense is the talking cure. Everyone in our profession makes the occasional error, and sharing your mistakes with a cadre of trusted friends and colleagues lets you know that you’re not alone, ensures that you’re less likely to make the same mistake as your friends or colleagues, and debunks the myth that perfection is attainable. The talking cure also extends to speaking with one’s mentors about their mistakes. Again, it means that you’re less likely to make those same mistakes (I will never forget to file a Rule 7.1 disclosure statement with a complaint), but it’s also reassuring to know that successful and inspiring lawyers and judges have made mistakes and lived to tell the tale. When I really need bucking up, I look around the crowd at the monthly Federal Bar Association lunches and think to myself, “Each one of these people has made mistakes.” Wouldn’t it be reassuring to go around the room and hear each person talk about their early missteps and the lessons they’ve learned since?
Third line of defense? Forgive other people’s mistakes. Just as I’ve sent out emails with a typo, grammatical error or incorrect attachment, so have my colleagues, peers and even opposing counsel. Once that happens, the only thing to do is fix a fixable mistake or move on from an unfixable one. Again, it’s nice to take a moment to learn something (an opportunity to ensure that I won’t make the same mistake!), but forgiving others also makes it easier to forgive yourself when the inevitable occurs. And nothing feels
better than telling an opposing counsel not to worry, you’re happy to delete the email that they mistakenly sent your way. When this happens, I feel like I’ve got social capital in the bank.
When all else fails, I simply tell myself to stop navel gazing. We’re in a profession that helps people and businesses tell their story. Sure, presentation is crucial if you’re a storyteller. What’s even more important, however, is staying focused on your clients, their stories and their goals. It’s just like I told the young East Coast associate — her typo won’t impact the litigation. Obsessing over the typo at the expense of the big picture, however, just might.
Sybil Dunlop joined Greene Espel in 2010 after clerking for the Honorable James M. Rosenbaum of the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota. Her practice focuses on representing individuals, corporations and public-sector entities in business and governmental defense litigation.