During the past 28 years (gulp), I’ve had the pleasure (and only rare horror) of working with many secretaries, legal secretaries, now known as administrative assistants, and paralegals. I couldn’t do what I do without their care and support. They are my lifelines in the midst of the legal whirlwhind we practice in.
Every once and awhile, I’ve had to deal with one of their mistakes. This is never a good thing. Sometimes it rises to the category of awful. But no one is perfect. Including of course us lawyers.
Staff errors can involve forgetting to properly note a motion. Setting up the deposition but forgetting to invite a court reporter. Not providing the court with working copies. Miscalculating dates. Forgetting to calendar dates. And many worse things.
Years ago, I heard the rumor about the senior partner at a defense firm who used to throw paper clips at staff when he became angry. I’ve personally witnessed some magnificent cussing tirades, complete with spewing spittle. Sweating flushed faces. Door slamming. Yelling. Sometimes a firing.
Here are suggestions on what to do when an occasional mistake is made by your staff:
- Maintain calm yoga like facade and try to smile. Throwing a fit isn’t going to cure anything. It may make you feel temporarily better. But it will make everyone else feel like crap.
- Do not yell, scream, or engage in spittle tossing.
- Breathe in.
- Breathe out.
- Resist the urge to panic.
- Focus first on what has to be done to fix the problem.
- Try to stop ruminating over whose fault it is. Ain’t going to help anything.
- Mentally say these words. I am the attorney and so I am the one who did this.
- Repeat that over and over even if it makes you ill.
- If needed, communicate with the court or the other counsel. In doing so, do not tell them a story of woe about how your staff screwed up. No one wants to hear that. They don’t care. What they care about is what you’re going to do next.
- Don’t wait to see if the problem will get better all on its own. It pretty much won’t.
- Don’t try to cover it up. I was in Junior High when the whole Nixon debacle went down. Lesson learned.
- Deal with it up front.
- Apologize if anyone was actually put out.
- Don’t be meek about it. Be strong as you embrace full responsibility for the mistake. Valor is associated with falling on the sword.
- You can increase your strength and credibility depending on how you deal with a mistake
- The court has little tolerance for whiners. If the judge is going to get mad at you, then just suck it up and get berated. Don’t whine and beg for mercy by pointing the finger at your staff.
- Hope for the best. There’s no downside to hoping. So long as you don’t procrastinate.
- Don’t procrastinate. Deal with it. Now.
- If this means staying late at the office. What’s new.
- If this means working on the weekend. What’s new.
- If this means having to tell your client. Then tell them.
- Don’t bring this up over and over again with your staff. It is done.
If you have never made a mistake, then you have every right to throw an absolute hissy fit. If your staff regularly makes big mistakes, then this is not the blog post that you should be reading.
Photo: Anne mugging for the camera so we can show you what making a mistake feels like. Not that Anne ever makes mistakes. Notice how her fingernails perfectly match her lips. Talk about attention to detail.