In the first weeks of my legal career as a young and inexperienced prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Lee Wells stopped me in the hallway and asked if I had seen the afternoon paper. When I told him I had not, he informed me that a story about a case I had issued was on the front page, and it was not good. I had made a rookie mistake, and a judge who disliked District Attorney E. Michael McCann had called the press to embarrass him.
I was devastated. Lee kindly explained to me what I should have done, and I went to my office to wait for the phone call that surely would lead to my dismissal in disgrace and the end of my legal career before it had really started.
Sure enough, the call came, and I walked into the office of a furious boss, not a circumstance any young lawyer desires. The newspaper lay on the desk in front of him, and Mr. McCann demanded to know if, in fact, I was the idiot responsible for the story. I confirmed I was. He asked why. My response: “Because I f-ed up.”
To my relief (and surprise), the smoke cleared from Mike’s ears. He sat down. I said to him, “I’ve never promised you that I won’t make mistakes. I will promise you that I will never make the same mistake a second time.” Mike’s response: “If I had never made a mistake in my life, I would really chew out your ass. But, I have. As long as you understand what you should have done, that’s fine with me, and I’ll call the press and make a statement.” I assured Mike, that due to Lee, I now understood.
com gherman loebherman Gregg Herman, U.W. 1977, is a family law attorney with Loeb & Herman S.C. whose primary office is in Milwaukee. He is co-editor of Family Law in Wisconsin: A Forms and Procedures Handbook, published by State Bar of Wisconsin PINNACLE®.
I learned two lessons from this episode that I have tried to apply to similar circumstances in my legal career – and life. First, if you make a mistake, just admit it. The cover up is usually worse than the “crime.” (See Watergate for reference). Most clients will respect you more if you admit a mistake (along with explaining a plan for correcting it) rather than pretending it did not occur. They will detect a cover-up and resent it.
Second, if someone admits a mistake, accept an apology. Mike McCann had every reason to chew me out, but good. After all, it was his name on the ballot. But he graciously accepted my admission of responsibility and never mentioned it again.
Mistakes happen. We cannot prevent them from happening. We can, however limit the damage they cause to ourselves and to others.