Never Trust a Lawyer Who Doesn’t Make Mistakes

By Murray Gottheil | June 8, 2023

Back in the day, I would have an associate join a client meeting with instructions to speak up if they thought I was getting something wrong. Of course, they would only do so occasionally because I was not wrong all that often. When they did, if their point was not so great, I would respectfully acknowledge it and move on, but if it was valuable, I would say so and say to the client something like, “that’s why I had her sit in.”

Sometimes a client would ask me a question that I did not know the answer to. I might say something like, “let me ask someone around here who is smarter than me” and get back to you.” [*My editor says that I have just proved my point, because the correct grammar should be “I”, not “me,” but me does not care.]

My humility was genuine, and clients liked it. Just like them, I did not know everything and was not the perfect person for every job. I was unlike the other lawyers with whom they dealt, who claimed to be all-knowing, perfect, and good-looking. The clients knew that I would reach out to others, both in my firm and outside of my firm, to be sure that they received the best possible advice. They trusted me.

I speak to many young lawyers nowadays, and I hear some interesting things about partners who will not admit when they are wrong.

For example, one associate told me that the partner he works for would never, ever, tell a client that his associate came up with an idea to improve the advice that he had given. He would not admit it to the client, or even to the associate. Often, this partner would rather persist with a strategy that he had recommended to the client rather than tell the client that he had considered the matter further and wanted to change his previous advice. And, even if he were willing to tell the client that he had rethought the matter, the last thing that he would ever consider doing would be to give credit to the associate.

Another associate lives in fear that if anything goes wrong, the partner will point the finger at her. The partner does not hesitate to accuse the associate of having forgotten instructions which the partner gave only in his imagination. The partner does not keep notes. The associate does. There is no mention of the instructions in the associate’s notes. But the partner is always right and the associate clearly screwed up. That approach does not buy a whole tonne of loyalty.

Whether the audience is a client or a co-worker, a lawyer who admits that they are not perfect and relies on members of their team or experts from outside of their firm to do a great job comes across as trustworthy. A lawyer who strives to be seen as nothing less than perfect presents as a jerk.

Jerks frequently find it difficult to hold onto their subordinates, and often lose clients. Of course, it is never their fault when that happens. How could it be?  They are perfect in their own mind, albeit pitifully selfish and insecure in mine.

Murray is a happily retired lawyer who lives in the country, drives a pick-up truck, writes, teaches and mentors. You can reach him at [email protected] or see what he is up to at


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