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How to Tell a Client you Made a Mistake

"Lawyer to the Colombian Drug Cartel," Time magazine called him. With the article for an introduction, I called him for an appointment. It's easy to get inside places when you have press credentials. I had a burning question:

"How did you become that guy?"

He told me a story that every lawyer should remember: Do your best not to make mistakes because some clients will not accept an apology.

Promises, Promises

"Jose Cocaina," let's call him, said he learned not to create unreasonable expectations for clients. A lawyer-competitor didn't learn that lesson, claiming he could obtain certain results in court but failed.

"Then one day, he disappeared," Cocaina said. "No more competition."

Suffice it to say, it's a big mistake to make promises you can't keep. Keep client expectations real because, after all, there are some mistakes you cannot survive.

The gateway key to dealing with the mistakes that you will make, is to make sure you choose the right clients. Then put the appropriate disclaimers in your retainer agreement and do your best.

Confession and Hail Mary

Once you have covered your assets, follow your own counsel and document everything. Email is the best because it can be organized, filed and billed, too!

But email is the worst way to own up to your mistake. It's like a death certificate showing the cause of death being your malpractice. Plus, it's too impersonal. Confessions should be made in person.

Telling a client you made a mistake is good because it clears the air for resolving it. Depending on the severity of the error, the client may still fire you but is less likely to complain to the bar or sue if you have accepted responsibility. The client may even forgive you and keep you working on the matter, especially if you have a plan to remedy the wrong.

Whatever the result, mistakes will be easier to handle when you have good client intake, careful documentation and honest communication. Of course, a good calendar system and malpractice carrier are mandatory.

And maybe a life insurance policy for those really touchy clients.

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