Originally published in Law Practice Today.
If you are a partner or senior manager, you have likely had the experience of finding an associate standing in your doorway with that sheepish look suggestive of an impending admission. Unfortunately, something has gone terribly wrong.
Perhaps the associate missed a critical deadline, or realized that they gave bad advice to a client. Maybe it involved a questionable social media post, or an impulsive comment that was misinterpreted. Whatever the case, at that moment – particularly if the error was one that could harm a client relationship – you may have felt a mixture of anger, frustration, and confusion.
That reaction is completely understandable, as the stakes are high and errors can be costly. That said, when you find yourself in this scenario, it is critical to stay clear-headed. Mistakes can also be great moments of opportunity, if you can take the steps necessary maximize the associate’s learning, and mitigate any longer-term impact to the associate’s (and your) reputation and brand. Think of these steps as “misstep management” or “misstep mitigation” – that is, a process to help move the error beyond its short-term implications, and into a larger developmental framework.
1. (Collaborative) Damage Control
Your initial focus is almost always going to be damage control. Errors need correction, and you will want to intervene quickly to minimize any ongoing harm. The key here is to include the associate in the process. This is true even if time sensitivities require that you take the lead in the resolution. A critical part of an associate’s growth and evolution is recognizing that mistakes happen, and that by and large, they are fixable. To the extent that parts of the damage control process are appropriate and safe to delegate to the associate, it is important that you do so. Including the associate in the process of remedying an error widens their understanding of the ups and downs of law practice, and builds a skillset around how to resolve other mistakes going forward.
2. Talking Through the Mistake
Once the situation is under control, set aside time to meet with the associate to get a clear sense of what happened. Did the associate misunderstand an instruction or process? Did they immediately recognize the mistake, or did they legitimately think the assignment was being handled correctly, only to learn later that something was amiss? The better you can understand what led to the error, the more equipped you will be to help the associate work through the misstep and to move beyond it.
3. Identifying and Facilitating Appropriate Training
Depending on the nature of the mistake, CLEs or other training opportunities – whether external programs or internal initiatives – could help the associate’s development. Use this moment to identify these opportunities, in addition to any informal steps that the associate might take, e.g., consulting with a senior associate who you know to be particularly well-equipped to provide guidance in the area at issue, and who has recently gone through the learning process.
4. Affording the Associate the Same Responsibility Again
While it is understandable that you might be reluctant to give the associate the same responsibility again, this is a critical step. The best way to learn from mistakes and move past an error is to dust yourself off and try it again; ideally, the sooner the better. The longer the associate fixates on the error, the greater the risk that they will consider it defining of their work. You may choose to be more actively involved at least the first time the associate gives it another go, but still endeavor to afford the associate as much space and autonomy as possible. The sooner the associate can successfully engage in the same responsibility, the greater the chance that they will put the mistake in the past and prevent such a mistake from recurring. In addition, along with affording the associate the same responsibility again, consider what other responsibilities you could assign to encourage their development.
5. Rehabilitating the Associate’s Reputation and Brand
Consider who might be feeling the impact of the associate’s mistake and whether you, as the managing attorney on the matter, can (and should) take steps to rehabilitate the associate’s reputation. Perhaps you want to have a conversation with the client to assure them that the appropriate remedial steps have been taken, and to convey your complete confidence in the associate going forward. From an internal standpoint, if you are aware that your fellow partners or others have heard rumors or partial information about what transpired, it might make sense to initiate a discussion among senior-level managers to prevent them from drawing incorrect conclusions. Whatever it is that makes sense in light of your particular situation, it is important to remember that it benefits both your brand and the associate’s if you are able to proactively manage the message.
6. Guiding the Associate
In addition to any rehabilitation work you may need to do, take some time to guide the associate on what they should be doing. For example, you might want to strategize with the associate on how best to explain the error if it comes up in conversation, or when questions arise in a formal evaluation. If appropriate under the circumstances, you might also want to walk through any steps the associate should be taking as far as reaching out to clients or others who were impacted by the error.
7. Letting Go
Mistakes are critical to learning, and once that learning has occurred, it is time to let go. You have served as an important mentor to an associate who was in a difficult spot, and have created a powerful learning experience from it. Do your best to look ahead to tomorrow.
Taking these steps holds the promise of improving the practice experience not just for the associate, but for you and all other members of your organization. Indeed, how you approach this situation will convey a message to other associates, who will use your response as a guide to how you might react to their potential future missteps. From a cultural standpoint, you want to send a message that you and your organization are invested in associate development; and from a practical standpoint, you want to encourage associates to be upfront about any future errors in a manner and on a timetable that allows for effective and timely resolution. You must manage these interchanges effectively. Ultimately, the more skillfully and thoughtfully you handle an associate error, the greater the likelihood of better outcomes in the future.