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White Lies Often Leave Black Marks

We all do it. A client or opposing counsel calls or emails you: You neglect to follow up. It may not be intentional. Everyone gets busy. You put something aside meaning to get to it later. And then you don’t. Eventually, you figure it out. Either you are reminded by the person who contacted you (nicely or otherwise), or you just discover it on your own.

At such moments it is very tempting to make up an excuse. “I didn’t get the message.” “It went to the spam folder.” Whatever. It’s a temptation a lawyer (or anyone really) should try hard to resist. Why? It’s not as though such light fictions or white lies are not commonplace. Frankly, the person receiving the excuse likely suspects that it is just that and the odds are low that anyone will make a big issue out of it – at least as long as there is not a pattern of doing so. All that may be true, but such conduct casts you in a less than favorable light and there is almost no good reason to ever do that.

I am always a bit shocked by people who will just make up blatant fabrications about relatively minor omissions or errors. I am even more shocked when I am told tales that are quantifiably false. It’s a bit like the teenager who tells the parent that they did not get their call or text message because their cell phone “died.” Any parent knows that is nonsense. And there are so many lawyer excuses that another lawyer (or client for that matter) will immediately recognize as made up. Don’t do it.

Last weekend I sat down on a rainy morning to catch up. I realized there was a client inquiry that I had sat on for almost two weeks. That is unacceptable and I would be quite unhappy if a lawyer working for me did that. Being human, however, as I responded to the client’s email, I started to say something about being super busy (which would really not be a lie) and not having enough time, etc. But I caught myself. I just admitted that I had set it aside and not gotten back to it as I should have. I apologized. The teaching point was the client’s response. He was pleased and impressed that I admitted the mistake, especially at 7:30 on a Sunday morning. Perversely, the whole interaction probably improved my relationship with that client.

The problem with trying to avoid responsibility for even a minor error – and not responding to a message is just that – is that it chips away at your overall credibility. Maybe not much, but as lawyers our credibility is a key component of our effectiveness. It’s just not worth taking needless risks with our own reputations – even for “little stuff.” Clients and other lawyers need to know that we mean what we say and say what we mean. Always.


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