Mistakes are a fact of life. They help us learn and improve. However, they can also be painful, embarrassing, and even harmful to your career, depending on the context. So, how can you acquire the hard-won knowledge without the consequences? As author and speaker Jim Rohn said, “It’s important to learn from mistakes, but it’s better to learn from other people’s mistakes.”
Learn from the experiences of other attorneys and avoid these common mistakes in your own law practice.
Not asking for help
Asking for help is difficult for a lot of people. We don’t want to burden someone else, or worse, make it seem like we’re incapable of finding answers on our own. However, there are times when everyone gets in over their head. Recognizing that situation and asking for help is a strength. Plus, people love to share their own knowledge and it will help you be known as a team player.
Underappreciating support staff
Alienating the support staff at your firm is one of the worst mistakes you can make and is also one of the most easily avoided. Secretaries, receptionists, paralegals, file clerks, etc. all serve vital functions at a law firm and can make your life infinitely easier in many ways. Treat them with real respect and they will move mountains to help you get things done and make you look good while doing it.
However, if you are disrespectful or treat them as disposable, you’ll find your life being made miserable in a thousand small ways, with messages being misplaced, important documents lost, and your requests pushed to the bottom of the stack. Do your best to start off on the right foot with the support staff, because that goodwill, once it’s lost, is exceptionally difficult to get back.
Organization is another habit that many young professionals underestimate. Being able to immediately lay your hands on a file or other information when it’s requested will support the conclusion that you’re a competent professional.
Constantly making people wait while you search for files and information, both digital and hard copies, will make you seem unprepared and even unprofessional. An organizational system is easy to follow, once it’s in place and putting things in their proper place is much easier than constantly searching for misplaced items.
Unwilling to admit mistakes
Although the goal is to learn from the mistakes of others and make fewer of your own, you are eventually going to make some mistakes. When you do, it’s important to take ownership of the error and correct it as soon as possible. No one is infallible, so taking responsibility when you do mess up will demonstrate your maturity and commitment to integrity.
Accepting the consequences of any mistakes and demonstrating you’ve learned from them will go a long way towards impressing your colleagues and giving you a reputation as someone that can be counted on.
While owning up to your mistakes is a good trait, not everyone is going to do it. When someone is unwilling to come forward after an error, it can be easy to fall into a trap of blame and fingerpointing.
However, being the one to accuse and blame colleagues isn’t going to win you any points, even if it is frustrating when no one accepts responsibility for a problem. In this case, it’s best to try to be part of the solution and fix the problem, rather than worrying about who’s to blame. Offering to help fix a problem that you didn’t create can have the added bonus of giving you a reputation as a team player who is dedicated to the overall success of the firm, rather than only looking out for yourself.
It can be hard to walk away from a juicy story, or a compelling bit of gossip when you’re trying to fit in at a workplace. Gossiping makes you feel like one of the team. But gossiping about colleagues or other people in your life never turns out well. Not only are you betraying someone’s trust, but you are also showing the people you are gossiping with that you can’t be trusted with important information. Having a reputation as someone who tells everything they know is bad no matter who you are, but it can be a career killer in the legal field, where confidentiality means everything.
Avoiding business development
Law firms need clients but bringing in new clients can be intimidating if you’ve never done it before. In many cases, partners are expected to do the work of bringing in new clients. But the ability to land clients doesn’t just appear when you become a partner. So, start working on business development early and often. It will show your commitment to the firm and give you the skills you need to excel when you need them.
Maintaining relationships with colleagues and clients can be very time-consuming and it can be tempting to put things like networking on the back burner when you’re busy. However, having a network you can count on is critical to your long-term success. People in your local legal community need to know your name and see your face. Building and maintaining those relationships can offer you untold benefits throughout your career.
Accept the opportunities that come your way to meet and mingle with other attorneys and business professionals, even when you feel crunched for time. You never know when one of those relationships will come in handy in the future.
Professionalism isn’t a coat you can remove whenever you feel like it. To be taken seriously, you need to act professionally in any situation where you might be observed by colleagues or potential clients. Getting drunk at the holiday party is a classic example of unprofessional behavior, but there are plenty of other situations where you can earn a reputation for being unprofessional outside the office.
Gaining the respect of your colleagues and clients can be difficult enough when you’re the new attorney at a firm. Don’t make it harder on yourself by giving them a reason to question your professionalism.
Unable to accept criticism
As noted, everyone is going to make some mistakes and with mistakes usually comes criticism. Hopefully, that criticism will be constructive and help you to move on and improve. In some cases, you will work with people who are not well-versed in constructive criticism. In those cases, do your best to read between the lines and take whatever lesson you can from the experience, while discarding anything that isn’t useful.
Accepting criticism and making it work for you is a skill like any other and those who use criticism to improve are going to be much more successful than those who only dwell on the negative aspects of it.
While it’s not necessary to avoid making every possible mistake, if you can avoid these common problems for attorneys early in your career, you will be able to establish yourself as a serious professional and give yourself more room for error in the future.