Paralegal Career Advice: 5 Tips for Fixing a Big Mistake at Work

There's nothing worse than the sinking feeling in your stomach when you realize you've made a mistake at work. Your heart starts pounding, your palms start sweating, and you don't know what to do next - fall on your sword or duck for cover - especially if you've just started a new job.

For paralegals however, ducking and taking cover just cannot work.  There are serious consequences for some mistakes because of the legal nature of the job.  I learned this the hard way recently with a major mistake I made.  Well, I of course had made minor mistakes, but this one was a biggie.  

As a litigation paralegal, I work cases through a settlement process and there are deadlines for enrolling clients.  I realized, at ten minutes to 5pm one day, that I had left a client out of the enrollment process and missed the deadline.  I knew instantly the severity of my mistake, knowing I may have just cost a family their chance at getting compensation for a very severe disability caused by a medical device.  In addition, a legal malpractice case for the attorney I work for could be potentially brought against him for the mistake I made. Yes, I panicked, and then I went home and cried. But I knew that would not solve the problem at hand.  I spent the entire night online assessing the damage, looking for solutions, and preparing to speak to my boss.  

Panicking made the situation worse, so I tried to keep calm and I followed these simple steps to assess the problem and enact a plan of action.

Tip #1: Assess the Situation

First, take a minute to breathe and assess the situation. Your initial urge may be to freak out, but once you've calmed down, you'll be able to see the mistake for what it really is. Is it really as bad as it seems, or can it be fixed relatively easily? Once you get a handle on the situation, you'll be able to take the appropriate next steps to fixing it.

Tip #2: Perform Triage

Some mistakes are so big that you need other's help to fix them. Some are small enough that you can correct them on your own. Some fall in the middle. Before you talk to your boss, see what you can do to minimize damage. Do any research, look at all options, and review all needed records you can in order to better fix the problem. Your boss will appreciate it if you inform him or her of the situation and already have a plan of action in place to correct the problem.

Tip #3: Talk to Your Boss

When a mistake occurs, there's always a little voice in your head that screams "Don't tell anyone! Hopefully they won't notice! Or maybe they'll blame it on someone else!"

You must ignore this voice at all costs. Talk to your boss sooner rather than later. Hopefully you've been able to enact some damage control (see point 2), but regardless, he or she will appreciate your honesty and having the opportunity to asses the situation themselves. Remember, your boss is the one that has to answer for the mistakes in his or her department, including yours, so you need to keep them in the loop.

Tip #4: Pass on the Information and Do The Work

Once your boss knows the situation, you need to fill in any other co-workers that may be affected by your mistake. Take a minute to think about what happened and who it can affect today, tomorrow, or even next week. There's nothing worse than reliving a mistake because it touched someone else further down the line. While it may not be the most comfortable conversation to have, trust me: your co-workers will appreciate it. Then of course, you must do the work to fix the mistake.  That could mean extra hours, retrieving records, completing additional paperwork, etc., and communicating with clients, attorneys as needed until the problem is solved.   

Tip #5: Learn from It

Don't beat yourself up. We're all human, which means we all make mistakes. The worst thing you can do is rehash the incident over and over in your mind, which will only make you more stressed and more likely to make another mistake. Instead, use the instance a learning opportunity to become a smarter, better, more efficient worker.

I was lucky in that the mistake I made was solved before trouble erupted.  The very next day I spoke openly to my boss about the error.  Honesty is always the best policy. The particular MDL was unofficially allowing late enrollments and we were able to recover for our client.  It was hard work though, as we had to rush to get proper medical records and fill out all needed forms as soon as we possibly could.  And yes, I most certainly learned from my mistake.  


Hedy Morris-Dayton said...

This was a great article. It provided solid tactics and approaches that are both ethical and professional, for handling an uncomfortable situation. Wonderful advice.

Diane Camacho said...

Excellent advice. I have always been a strong believer in telling my boss of any mistakes before a client or co-worker does.

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