Learning From Our Mistakes

  • March 01, 2014
  • Debra Bruce

A wise person said a mistake “is not a mistake unless you fail to learn from it.” I made my share of mistakes in my legal career, and here are a few I learned from. I thought I would offer you the chance to learn from some of mine, instead of making them all yourself.

  1. Viewing speaking and writing as non-billable time. It is true that we usually can’t bill anyone for those activities or the preparation time required. When I looked at it that way, however, I tended to de-value the activity, and put it behind everything else. Of course, that means I didn’t get around to developing talks or writing articles that would showcase my expertise and expose me to new contacts. The wiser course would have been to view those efforts as important business development activities, so that I would give them the appropriate emphasis.

  2. Focusing on prospective clients and not on prospective referral sources. At a time when I represented small businesses, the managing partner of the regional office of a large national insurance company asked me to give a talk to their sales stars about shareholder agreements in closely held organizations. I never got around to it. I saw it as a favour to them and I didn’t recognize that they would be highly motivated to act like my free sales force convincing business owners that they needed shareholder agreements backed by key-leader life insurance. I didn’t recognize the opportunity, even though I had seen how an initial small project could develop into a significant long-term client.

  3. Not networking enough with lawyers in other practice groups. As an associate in a large law firm, I billed a lot of hours. In those years I got a myopic view of firm politics, and missed a lot of opportunities to build or strengthen valuable alliances. Life in a law firm can have striking similarities to the reality television show Survivor, where alliances play a crucial role.

  4. Training one subordinate after another on the same thing. After suffering through temporary employees and new trainees a few times, I learned to ask the people I supervised to develop a desk manual respecting their responsibilities. For any redundant work, the manual set out detailed explanations of the procedures involved and the location of the useful or necessary resources. I also established indexed form banks that I could point people to. That made my practice more system-dependent and less people-dependent. I got higher quality product from my direct reports, I spent less of my own time in the delegation process, and I didn’t get crippled when the inevitable turnover occurred.

  5. The ranks of lawyers include a lot of workaholics, and I’ve been one of them. When the law firm culture rewards martyrdom in the name of client service or higher revenues, lawyers may fail to recognize the true price they pay. Until I learned to establish some boundaries and engage in self-care, I worked myself into poor health. Looking back on those days from the maturity of my years and the vantage point of experience, what I gained was not worth what I lost.

  6. Telling an experienced assistant how I liked things done without asking her how she liked to do things. When I joined a new law firm, I blew it on the very first day. As a result of that faux pas, we got off to a bad start and I experienced a lot of passive-aggressive foot-dragging and low quality work product from a very competent staff member. If I had started out by asking her how she suggested doing things, I might have learned a few new ideas. There would be plenty of time later to develop a working methodology that satisfied us both. I would have had a more willing guide through my initiation at the new firm, and I definitely would have saved myself a lot of frustration over the next few months.

This is a slightly condensed version of an article that originally appeared in The Practice Manager, published by the State Bar of Texas in March 2008. Reproduced with permission from the author.