The Ethics of Making Mistakes

Ellen Lockwood, ACP, RP

Ellen Lockwood, ACP, RP

We all make mistakes. Big or small, disastrous or inconsequential, permanent error or easily rectified, mistakes happen. Anyone who claims never to make a mistake is either lying or always blames her mistakes on others.

If you discover an error it should be brought to the attention of the supervising attorney as soon as possible. Even if it appears that the error isn’t time sensitive, the sooner it is brought to the supervising attorney’s attention, the sooner she may determine how to correct it. Likewise, it is not a paralegal’s place to determine whether an error is significant. All errors should be reported to the supervising attorney.

The worst thing you can do is try to cover up a mistake. Regardless of how serious the error is, you are more likely to be written up or fired if you try to cover up the error or fix it yourself. I once worked with a paralegal who accidentally faxed a privileged document to opposing counsel. Instead of notifying her supervising attorney, she contacted opposing counsel and tried to get the fax back. Of course, opposing counsel called her supervising attorney so then she was in more trouble for not notifying him than for sending the fax in the first place.

A friend worked with a secretary who was charged with sending urgent documents via overnight delivery. Unfortunately, when the secretary left for the day, she left the envelope on her desk. When the secretary got to work the next morning and realized her mistake, she took the
envelope down to the building’s Fed Ex box. When the documents didn’t arrive, she told the attorney that the Fed Ex pickup must have occurred earlier than the time posted on the box. The Fed Ex driver insisted he hadn’t arrived early, so the attorneys reviewed the building security camera tapes which revealed the truth. The secretary was let go not for forgetting to put the envelope in the Fed Ex box, but for lying about it.

When you realize you have made a mistake, or when a mistake you made is brought to your attention, you should take the following steps:

  • Admit your error to the supervising attorney and apologize, even if it was beyond your control. Be sure to take responsibility for your involvement in the situation, whether it was inadvertent, not taking time to double-check, relying on someone else who didn’t do something, etc. Do not blame others for your part in the situation.
  • When describing the error you shouldn’t leave out any important details, but don’t take more time than necessary to describe the error. You may always elaborate if asked. Don’t make excuses.
  • Offer suggestions on how to rectify mistake or minimize its impact. Making suggestions shows you have considered the situation and are willing to assist in rectifying it.
  • Follow the attorney’s instructions on what steps to take to deal with the mistake, even if the attorney does not take
    any of your suggestions, or asks someone else to handle the corrective steps.

When the crisis is over and everyone is calmer, offer suggestions to your supervising attorney as to how the similar mistakes may be avoided in the future. Again, do not make excuses and do not blame anyone else for your role in the situation. Be sure to include suggestion on what you yourself can do, not just what others should do.

While you will, of course, be judged by the type and frequency of the mistakes you make, what likely will be more important is whether you handle your errors ethically and professionally. After all, we all make mistakes. What matters most is what you do about them.

Ellen Lockwood, ACP, RP, is the Chair of the Professional Ethics Committee of the Paralegal Division and a past President of the Division. She is a frequent speaker on paralegal ethics and intellectual property and the lead author of the Division’s Paralegal Ethics Handbook published by West Legalworks.

If you have any questions regarding any ethical issue, please contact the Professional Ethics Committee.

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Originally published in the Texas Paralegal Journal © Copyright Paralegal Division, State Bar of Texas.