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Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: Practical Advice for New Lawyers

Q: Are there lessons for new lawyers from the recent Academy Awards “Envelopegate” snafu involving PwC?

A: Oh yes. The more obvious lessons are that even with straightforward assignments, the consequences of mistakes can be huge and “do-overs” may not be possible. I discuss these and other lessons below.

“Envelopegate” is the moniker many media outlets have given to the Best Picture snafu at the 2017 Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday, February 26, 2017.

To set the stage (for the approximately zero percent of readers who have not had any Internet or other news access in the past week), a partner from the renowned accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP (PwC), handed Warren Beatty the wrong envelope. Chaos ensued.

Beatty opened the envelope, looked at the card and looked at it again. He looked inside the envelope. He checked the envelope one more time – then handed the papers to Faye Dunaway. She triumphantly announced that La La Land had won the award for Best Picture. Trophies in hand, the La La Land acceptance speeches commenced and continued until the film’s producers announced that Moonlight had actually won the Oscar.

For those who crave specifics or schadenfreude, the official video and transcript of the “historic” debacle are here.

Here are six lessons from the incident for new lawyers:

  1. The Stakes are High. In law, there are few second chances, and the stakes can be high. Clients can lose their rights, their children, their businesses, or scads of money. As a new lawyer, the firm should not put you in a situation in which a mistake would be catastrophic. But the firm will still expect you to exercise diligence and extreme care.
  1. Partners Get the Glamourous Work for a Reason. With “Envelopegate” the task involved was simple: Hand the correct envelope to a celebrity who would read the contents inside. PwC partners performed this basic task. Far more junior people at PwC could have done the work. But partners did the job because the stakes were so high. For the PwC partners, in addition to global embarrassment, the early fallout from “Envelopegate” included being fired from the Academy Awards – and reportedly – even death threats. Here is the reminder for new lawyers: One reason partners get the glamorous work is that when things go wrong, partners take the hits.  
  1. Get More Complex Work by Building Trust. Because of the high stakes, you need to build trust before senior lawyers will be comfortable assigning you complex or high-risk work. As “Envelopegate” demonstrated, even minor errors – in that case handing the wrong envelope to a celebrity – can have major impacts. With millions looking on, elated movie executives expressed thanks for an award they did not win. For new lawyers, the lesson here is that building trust is the surest path to interesting and complex work. Focus on doing your best work on the projects you have. And seek out complex work, but be patient. Building trust takes time.
  1. Stay Focused – Even on Mundane Tasks. Just minutes before handing the wrong envelope to Beatty, Brian Cullinan, chairman of the U.S. board of PwC, tweeted a photo of Emma Stone. Media outlets have speculated that the tweet may have been a distraction that contributed to the mistake. Passing out envelopes one at a time may provide even less intellectual stimulation than document review. But the lesson from “Envelopegate” is that even with mundane tasks new lawyers can’t lose focus.
  1. Fix Mistakes Immediately. Another key lesson from “Envelopegate” is that the longer mistakes continue, the worse they can become. Here is commentary from the Hollywood Reporter:

No one has yet offered an explanation as to why the PwC accountants didn't immediately correct the mistake, especially when Beatty was clearly confused and paused before showing the card to Dunaway, who announced, "La La Land!" It took two minutes and 25 seconds from when Dunaway said the name of the film to when Horowitz said Moonlight was the real winner, an eternity under such circumstances.

In another report, a stage manager lamented that with more delay, “we could have been off the air before it was fixed.”

As a new lawyer, the lesson is that you need to act to correct mistakes immediately. That can be painful and embarrassing, but hesitation or avoidance will only make the chore more difficult and the consequences more dire.

  1. Take Responsibility. As a new lawyer, no one expects you to be perfect. But if you make a mistake, senior lawyers will expect you to own it. Deflecting blame will erode trust – and adds insult to injury. This report on “Envelopegate” illustrates the issue:

. . . sources say there was a meeting right after the show, and that Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs and CEO Dawn Hudson were livid when reps for PwC didn't immediately take responsibility for the error, tried to suggest it was Beatty's fault and initially resisted putting out any kind of statement. 

PwC did issue a formal apology shortly after the incident.

For new lawyers, Rule No. 1 is to do your best to avoid mistakes. Rule No. 2 is to work to fix them as soon as possible. And rule No. 3 is to take responsibility.

Good luck!

Join the conversation by submitting questions on Twitter @Babysharklaw or here. Get the new Second Edition of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks here.

Grover E. Cleveland is a Seattle lawyer, speaker and author of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer (West 2d. 2016). Grover specializes in programs to help new lawyers successfully transition from law school to practice, helping them provide more value and avoid common mistakes. He is a former partner at Foster Pepper PLLC, one of the Northwest’s larger firms. His clients included the Seattle Seahawks and other entities owned by Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen. Grover is a frequent presenter on lawyer career success and generational issues at leading law firms and schools nationwide. Many questions in this column come from those programs. Readers may submit questions here or follow him on Twitter @Babysharklaw. He is not related to the 22nd and 24th President of the United States.

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