One of the moments from Hamilton that stuck with me is when George Washington calls Hamilton back into action, finally giving him a command at the Battle of Yorktown. Sensing his apprehension, Washington shares how he walked his first command straight into a massacre. That exchange always spoke to me with respect to the practice of law.
No one wants to make mistakes. We owe an ethical duty to try our hardest to avoid them. When it comes to your adversaries, there’s certainly no need to wave a flag and point them out. If you move past most mistakes at warp speed, typically they go unnoticed. But for those we’re mentoring, it’s important for them to know that no lawyer is perfect.
The stakes of our mistakes must be kept in perspective. For Washington to become the general and president we know, his training and ascension required the substantial loss of actual human life. Our profession has a knack for creating panic attacks over errant citations and filing errors. While you certainly don’t want to be reckless, you also don’t want to paralyze your potential. If a lawyer takes a case, they should make every effort to do the required and extra-credit reading, but even when you do that, perfection remains easily eluded. Law ain’t science.
To “learn from our mistakes so we don’t repeat them,” we need to expose ourselves to making more mistakes for it to be a growth experience. In fact, we have to embrace the potential for even bigger mistakes. Entire careers can get derailed by fear. It leads attorneys not to pursue more challenging cases, to avoid a lead role on a case, and to stay in the job that feels comfortable instead of the job they want. In my time, I’ve probably seen more fearless than genius lawyers excel in private practice.
Most mistakes are not the end of the world. I was once told that you can fix just about anything that isn’t jurisdictional. In my experience, that’s typically true … you’re just going to feel awful for a couple of days. I get at least one call a week from an experienced lawyer friend that starts with something to the effect of, “what do you think happens if…,” “so how bad is it if…,” or “do you think it’s a big deal that…” Usually 24-48 hours pass, and we’re all on to the next problem.
I guess all I’m saying is George Washington is responsible for a lot of people dying. He still became president. Whatever mistake we made today, it probably wasn’t that bad and there’s probably still hope for us.