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Owning up to mistakes - what is the right thing to do?

08 January 2018

Mistakes happen. Everybody - even lawyers at the top firms - make mistakes.


Yet for solicitors, errors can imply either incompetence or carelessness. Although PI insurance can protect against monetary claims, it can’t rectify the loss of face or reputation associated with such failures. As a result, facing the music can be especially daunting for solicitors throughout their careers, not just at the beginning.

But if errors are not acknowledged, corrected and recognised then they will likely spiral and end up with the Legal Ombudsman or, at the very worst, in the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal. So, what to do?

  • Don’t panic
  • Don’t keep your mistakes to yourself
  • Accept responsibility
  • Take action
  • Apologise
  • Try to learn from it

Don’t panic

It may be tempting to have a total meltdown, so do take a few minutes for yourself. Losing your cool won’t correct the mistake and it won’t help you, the firm or the client. The facts of the situation will remain the same, regardless of how you feel about them. Focus on the task at hand and channel your anxiety into finding out how the mistake occurred. Ask yourself:

  • How bad is it?
  • Can it be rectified?
  • Who can help me with it?

Share the mistake with your supervisor or a colleague

A problem shared is a problem halved, as they say. And it will only look worse if someone else discovers your error. It is very important to maintain the trust and respect of your supervisors, colleagues and clients and owning up to your mistakes is part of that. Ask yourself if you would continue to trust someone who tried to cover up their mistakes? Contact your supervising solicitor or COLP and tell them that a mistake has been made with matter X, and that you need to discuss it with them.

Accept responsibility and ‘act with integrity’

Remember you are a professional and have a duty to ‘act with integrity’ under Principle 2 of the SRA Handbook. You are required to do your best for the client, even if it means that you must own up to something you have done. If a mistake you have made is going to affect the client (or only get worse), you have a professional (and ethical) obligation to bring it to light.

Don’t try and shift the blame or avoid responsibility for the failure. Full disclosure is always the best policy.

Take action

Before you confess to a mistake, try and devise a plan to correct the problem. Your supervisor or managing partner is likely to be much more amenable if you present them with possible solutions. Communicate clearly the steps you intend to take to fix the problem, the expected timeline, the expected result, and the likelihood of success. If you have no idea about how to do that then ask for their suggestions on how to fix the problem.

Apologise

Research by the Legal Ombudsman suggests that lawyers have difficulty apologising in a straightforward way. Language is very important. Do not resort to the disingenuous 'if'. Saying, 'I’m sorry if you were offended/upset by my comments/behaviour/mistake,' is worse than not apologising at all.  It’s best just to say you’re sorry for the mistake and to reassure your managers that it won’t happen again.

Do you know about a little-known law under which businesses can apologise when something goes wrong, without worrying that it amounts to an admission of guilt? Part two of the Compensation Act 2006 is entitled 'Apologies, offers of treatment or other redress', and reads: 'An apology, an offer of treatment or other redress, shall not of itself amount to an admission of negligence or breach of statutory duty.

If you need to apologise to a client then be direct, explain what went wrong and take action to remedy it where possible. In more serious cases, it may be prudent to waive some or all of your fees.

Learn from it

Don’t do it again. You’ll make other mistakes (we all do), but making the same mistakes repeatedly suggests you aren’t learning. Your firm’s complaints log should help you to establish the most common errors and hopefully, move to correct them.
Although your firm can (and should) have risk management structures in place to deal with errors it is equally important to have a culture in place that encourages the early recognition and acceptance of mistakes. Staff should feel that they can admit that a mistake has been made and know that there is the support within the firm to remedy it.

It is essential to educate everyone within the firm that making the mistake is not the real issue - it’s how the mistakes are handled that counts.

Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.

We held a symposium ‘Owning up to Mistakes’. Pearl Moses, our Head of Risk & Compliance led a lively workshop session with a discussion on honesty, integrity and how to deal with mistakes when they inevitably happen.

Pearl is speaking about the impact of GDPR at our Law Management Section’s 1 day event HR for law firms Wednesday 28 February 2018. Book by 26 January to save £50.

About the author

Pearl Moses is Head of Risk & Compliance at the Law Society

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