Lawyer life
December 1, 2020

Making mistakes as a lawyer

Making mistakes when you’re a lawyer can be catastrophic. As junior lawyers we hear horror stories of multi-million pound professional negligence claims and lawyers being struck off because they put a comma in the wrong place in a contract. 

The result – we are all terrified of making mistakes!

Making mistakes is an inevitable part of being human, but reconciling this with the attitude so prevalent in the industry that mistakes are not acceptable creates a real conflict and source of discontent. 

Lawyers are a risk averse breed, trying at every opportunity to minimise the likelihood of a mistake, and therefore potential claim, arising. Fence-sitting is a popular past-time, and you can’t work in private practice without encountering your fair share of “arse-covering” emails. The result is that law firm cultures are built on the premise that mistakes are something that should be avoided.

Mistakes should be seen as an essential ingredient to turning junior lawyers into expert lawyers

As a trainee you become accustomed to the barrier that exists between you and clients, there to shield your firm from the risk of you doing or saying anything negligent. Every sentence you write is checked at least once, and then usually re-written. Whilst a degree of comfort can be taken from the safety blanket wrapped around you, often the consequent effect on confidence and self-esteem is overlooked. The result is that the mental health of junior lawyers is being put under considerable strain.

One would hope that our regulator, the SRA, would understand the basic principle that ‘mistakes happen’ and adopt a holistic approach when determining disciplinary action. However, there has been an unfortunate string of decisions where junior lawyers have made mistakes and been struck off, despite evidence of poor leadership, toxic work environments and mental health issues. These decisions only serve to amplify the likelihood of mistakes being concealed for fear of disproportionate sanctions. 

Instead of being viewed as something which is damaging to our self-image, mistakes should be seen as an essential ingredient to turning junior lawyers into expert lawyers. In a profession with so much emphasis on continuous professional development, it’s counter-productive to suppress them. 

Trainees and junior lawyers need to be encouraged to make mistakes and given the space to do so. Of course, mistakes need to be identified and fixed before they are shared with clients, but this can be done in a culture where learning and development are the focus, and people are free to talk about the errors they have made without judgement or blame. 

Partners and senior lawyers need to lead by example by owning their own mistakes (because we do make them!) and not tolerating any form of blame shifting. There also needs to be greater recognition of the correlation between stress and fatigue and making mistakes, and more focus on what can be done to improve the mental health of junior lawyers. 

Those firms which succeed in creating a culture where lawyers feel safe in making mistakes without fear of being shamed or punished will benefit from happier staff, better lawyers and, ironically, fewer mistakes. Hopefully, it won’t be the case that such firms are in the minority for much longer.