The job that I have right now is not my first rodeo in the world of office life. During my last year and a half of college and the year I took off in between college and law school, I worked at two separate firms in Florida. The second firm I worked at began a bonus structure based on performance reviews just about a few months before I left for law school. When I met with my two supervisors, they informed me that they couldn’t be happier with my performance and I would be getting the top-level bonus. (Yay.) However, because no one is ever perfect, as they told me, they did have some feedback and constructive criticism.
My bosses then looked me dead in the eye and told me that I needed to get better at teamwork. No, not that I didn’t play well with others in the office. That was all fine and dandy. But that I needed to back away from the “that’s not my job” attitude I sometimes took. On the outside, twenty-one-year-old me professionally did the active-listener-nod, promised improvement, and thanked my bosses for the feedback, and had a markedly less professional response to this critique on the inside.
It goes without saying that I didn’t really understand what they were trying to tell me at that point in my life and career. Even to a certain extent today I still think it’s a ton of malarkey, but I had a situation the other day where I felt like maybe I actually did learn something and grow from their criticism.
The story begins that I received a file from one of the paralegals in our office asking if I could do some minor edits to a motion that someone else had prepared. And by minor, I mean seriously minor edits that included changing a few numbers and that was it. The file also required some correspondence with the client, so instead of dumping that back onto the person who first prepared the motion, I decided to just send what needed to be sent to the client myself. In total, this probably took 5 minutes, and I hung on to the file until we heard back from the client.
A week or so down the road, I did hear back from the client, who also CCed two senior partners from the office in her response (one being my direct boss), saying that she had found a rather large mistake in the motion and asking for an explanation. I can tell you, the urge at this juncture to throw my hands up and say, “Nope, wasn’t me!” or even worse, to point the finger at the person who originally prepared the motion and was responsible for the error, and say, “HE DID IT, NOT ME!” was tremendous.
But I didn’t When I met with the senior partner, I simply explained to him that I had received the file to make some edits and in doing so, I should have noticed the discrepancy myself. I took responsibility and the co-worker who had truly made the mistake remained a secret.
Now, by all means, I’m not saying to always take the fall for people. But sometimes being a team player means more than just being flexible while working on a brief with a co-worker. Also, you might not realize it now, but as a lawyer, you’re going to take the fall for other people, namely your client, whether you choose to or not. I can assure you, there will come a day when you will be decimated by a judge for something your client did that was no fault of your own. But on that day, you will look like a pretty weak lawyer if you point the finger like a tattle-tailing child and say, “But judge, it wasn’t me! It was my client!” And you probably won’t have that client for too much longer either.
With this in mind, I think I finally understand the criticism I received that day back in Florida and the wisdom inside it. It’s easier to learn the skill of eating humble pie in the privacy of your office rather than in the public forum of a court of law.