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When is a mistake actually a mistake

There are few certainties in life: death, taxes and mistakes. Some counsel resist this unfortunate reality tooth and nail, believing that to be a lawyer is to be perfect, buying into what TV, society and some of our peers say. Is this perception either helpful or healthy?

The hypercritical environments some counsel either find or create for themselves contribute to disenfranchisement and dissatisfaction, says Asim Khan, Senior Legal Counsel, and Legal Operations at Personio.

“Pushing or establishing an environment where there is no recognition that mistakes may occur means teams or organizations never have an opportunity to discuss how to handle a mistake. This leads to the belief that mistakes cannot occur, which doesn’t reflect reality, and increases the stress levels of individuals who work in constant fear of failure."

The reality to which Khan speaks is that everyone, even ultra-powerful artificial intelligence, makes mistakes. Instead of rallying against these errors, we could make things much easier for ourselves by accepting them and using what has happened as an opportunity to learn.

“The biggest mistake we make is not accepting that we will make a mistake," says Khan. "There’s only one guarantee in your legal career, and that is you will mess up, you'll make a mistake.”

In a sense, thrashing against mistakes is akin to yelling at the moon for rising and falling. You’re battling against certainty and riling yourself up for nothing.  More importantly, you’re potentially compromising your ability to calmly solve the situation by piling additional stress onto an already stressful situation.

“When we make our own mistake that panicked mindset sets in and we forget the basics. Take a step back, own the mistake and take accountability where you need to. But find a way to resolve and learn from it. The key is not to dwell on your mistakes."

This is a lesson Khan believes is particularly pertinent for junior counsel. Their first error usually sticks in their gut like a knife, then every time it is mentioned or recalled that knife is given a little twist. Figuratively speaking, more senior lawyers generally have a small stack of said knives piled in a desk drawer.

Creating a culture where mistakes are embraced as learning opportunities as opposed to rods for self-flagellation, is an important next step for those in the legal industry. Having such a culture may help to erode the so-called lawyer persona, which does more harm than good.

“There is a misconception around the dynamics of a team; everybody expects a legal team to have a culture of perfection. Studies have shown that effective teams are those that admit to errors, learn from them and move on. Teams achieve this by creating a culture where there is no risk to owning up to a mistake."

“Any culture shift begins with an individual. Whether you are the head of legal, senior counsel or paralegal, add the topic to your next team meeting and get the conversation going," Khan advises.

His advice for juniors feeling the pang of that first big mistake is simple: "Keep calm and carry on."

You can't change the fact you've made a mistake, but you can impact your response. Take a step back and take a breath, assess the situation and seek help; learn from it.

The mark of a good lawyer is not about taking pride in making no mistakes. Rather, it is about acknowledging that mistakes happen and taking pride in finding and correcting them.

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