The New Normal

How lawyers can embrace mistakes


By Patrick J. Lamb

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Lawyers hate mistakes. They can be career-killers if you make them as an associate. Lawyers worry that clients will fire them or sue them if they make a mistake as a more senior level. So we have created a profession that welcomes a “choose to ignore” mistakes mentality. That is a mistake. A big one.

Mistakes are inevitable. A fact of life. A fact of practice. Everyone makes them. We assume mistakes are a bad thing. But are they really?

William McKnight, the longtime president and chairman of 3M, laid out his basic rule of management in 1948:

“As our business grows, it becomes increasingly necessary to delegate responsibility and to encourage men and women to exercise their initiative. This requires considerable tolerance. Those men and women, to whom we delegate authority and responsibility, if they are good people, are going to want to do their jobs in their own way.

“Mistakes will be made. But if a person is essentially right, the mistakes he or she makes are not as serious in the long run as the mistakes management will make if it undertakes to tell those in authority exactly how they must do their jobs.

“Management that is destructively critical when mistakes are made kills initiative. And it’s essential that we have many people with initiative if we are to continue to grow.”


Legendary business consultant Peter Drucker shared this view:

“Nobody learns except by making mistakes. The better a man is, the more mistakes he will make—for the more new things he will try. I would never promote a man into a top-level job who has not made mistakes, and big ones at that. Otherwise, he is sure to be mediocre.”


Albert Einstein was even more succinct:

“A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.”


But none of these quotes comes from or is about lawyers. Even though many lawyers think “we’re special,” does anyone honestly believe lawyers don’t make mistakes? Those who honestly hold such a belief should be avoided at all costs because the lack of intellectual honesty is resonant character flaw.

So we make mistakes. What do we do about it? After Action Assessments.That’s where the learning occurs.

Every Navy Seal exercise and mission ends with an After Action Assessment. These A3s result in changes in tactics, new weapons, new approaches to training and so much more. Some lawyers who practice A3s believe they should be done at the end of a matter. Great. But why restrict learning to just at the end of cases, when so much has been forgotten? Given how simple A3s are, it is appropriate to do them often, whether after a deposition, the researching of a brief, a document review or just after a meeting. Each A3 is an opportunity to learn. Don’t fear them. Embrace them.

What does an A3 look like? On a whiteboard or a flip chart, make two columns and label one “What Went Well” (aka W3) and the other “Take A Look At” (aka TALA). Everyone involved should share their thoughts without recrimination. If you can’t be honest, no one will share their thoughts, and no one will learn.

Once you have the information, what do you do with it? Share it! Let your colleagues learn from your mistakes, so you can learn from theirs. There are two bad mistakes—one that could have been avoided if you had learned from someone else’s mistake, and worse yet, the same mistake repeated.

After Action Assessments are a great tool. They should be standard parts of every lawyer’s practice.


Patrick Lamb is a founding member of Valorem Law Group, a litigation firm representing business interests. Valorem helps clients solve their business disputes and cope with pressures to reduce legal spend using nontraditional approaches, including use of nonhourly fee structures, coordination with LPOs or contract lawyers, joint-venturing with other firms and implementation of project management tools to handle lawsuits or portfolios of litigation.

Pat is the author of the books Alternative Fee Arrangements: Value Fees and the Changing Legal Market and Alternative Fees for Litigators and Their Clients. He also blogs at In Search Of Perfect Client Service.

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