Legal Career Advice: How to Bounce Back from a Blunder

Q: I recently made a stupid mistake at work. I know these things happen to everyone, but now I’m afraid my boss and colleagues won’t be able to trust me anymore. How can I make things right again and regain their confidence?

You’re right: Everyone makes mistakes at work. But rest assured that this is not the end of your legal career — far from it. Actually, knowing how to recover from an embarrassing situation is an important life skill to have, and the harshest but best teacher is experience.

3 Tips for Bouncing Back from a Blunder

Since you didn’t give specifics, here are three general tips on how to prevent a slip-up from snowballing into a major situation, and how to bounce back from a blunder.

1. Find a balance

Don’t overreact. There’s no need to run to your boss’s office, confess your sins, apologize profusely, and swear to never, ever do it again. But neither should you pretend nothing’s wrong, hope the error never gets noticed or get defensive when you get called out.

The key is to strike a balance between self-flagellation and sticking your head in the sand. Don’t wait for someone to notice, but do inform the appropriate parties — no need to broadcast it to the entire firm — as to what happened. Apologize for your mistake, but don’t belabor the point. Come up with a possible solution, but don’t hesitate to ask for help.

A past failure can lead to future success in your legal career, but only if you don’t let it

cripple you with fear of making another mistake.

2. Plan for damage control

Determine whether your mistake can be rectified. Behaved badly at the office holiday party ? You can’t undo the past, so resolve to behave more professionally at future social functions — and stick to one glass of wine. If you forgot to file an important document at the courthouse, courier it over as soon as possible. Better yet, go in person and explain your oversight to the clerk.

If the error is more serious, you must tell your supervisor. Never hide from it, as your firm could be sued for malpractice for mistakes such as violating confidentiality or not filing a lawsuit in time. Set aside your embarrassment and show your employer you’re committed to doing whatever you can to protect the company.

3. Focus on next steps

A past failure can lead to future success in your legal career, but only if you don’t let it cripple you with fear of making another mistake. Obsessing over what went wrong can distract you from carrying out your duties, leading to carelessness and a possible repeat of your slip-up.

Once you’ve informed the appropriate parties and are dealing with the problem, review where you went wrong. If you used an old document as a template but didn’t make all the necessary name changes, get into the habit of proofreading absolutely everything — petitions, orders, hearings and correspondences — before sending. If you missed an important deadline, see how you can improve your project management system. Then move on.

A mistake is just a blip in your legal career. It doesn’t define who you are — unless you’re a habitual offender. Whether you’re an entry-level paralegal or a senior partner, you’re bound to mess up at some point. And when that happens, all you can do is stay calm, own up to it, apologize, do whatever you can to fix it, and then learn from the humiliating experience.