Is Tattling On Yourself Admirable or Stupid?

The other day, I made a mistake at work. It was the kind of mistake that my boss may or may not have ever noticed, the kind of mistake that doesn't have far-reaching consequences but is nonetheless wrong. Also important to note is that this was the kind of mistake that was already out there, and there was nothing anyone could do to change it or somehow make it less of an error. When I realized I'd made the mistake, I decided to email my boss right away and tell him what I'd done. He wrote back and acknowledged that I had indeed made a mistake but that he was glad I'd alerted him. But...was I wrong to turn myself in?

When I told some co-workers about the incident, one guy admitted he'd done the exact same thing...but hadn't alerted our boss and had never gotten called out for making the mistake. After reflecting on the different ways we'd handled the situation, I'm sure some of our different approaches can be attributed to our different personalities, but I also think gender played a role. In my experience, men--as a general rule--are less likely to publicly own up to mistakes while women are more likely to do so.

In the abstract, it is admirable that one would be honest and step up to admit wrongdoing, but in practice, can it hurt your career? For example, my boss now knows that I am fallible. I have screwed up and drawn his attention right to my error. My co-worker, on the other hand, made the exact same screw-up, but the boss never knew (that we know of). So, arguably my boss might think that my co-worker's abilities are superior to my own, even though we both did the same thing wrong. I wonder how much of professional competence is about bluster and fakery and how much an honest perspective on your own abilities and shortcomings can actually be a hinderance to moving ahead. After all, people who project competence get promoted--and perhaps projecting competence is less about actual competence and more about the appearance of said competence. Should I have twiddled my thumbs and whistled a carefree tune when I realized my error and just waited to deal with my boss when and if he came to me rather than going straight to him? I'm starting to think that the answer is yes.



I'm not convinced this behavior corollates to gender, at least not among lawyers. I don't have any empirical data one way or the other, but my experience has not revealed a gender divide when it comes to owning-up.
I too have been the one to alert my boss to my mistakes - but I think I feel obligated to do so because in my job my boss is ultimately responsible for my mistakes, not me.  So far I've had two mistakes that I was really nervous to bring to light - both times my boss put me at ease and helped figure out a quick solution to the problem I had caused. I don't know how I could have not admitted either mistake and been comfortable - despite the unlikihood they would have ever been noticed otherwise. 
I think this relationship is common to young attorneys - whether you are clerking as I am or working as an associate under a partner or as an assistant to a prosecutor, etc - your work is likely attributed to or at least associated with your boss. I think much of the profession depends upon and fosters a commitment to a certain hierarchy - and if you respect that hierarchy you're likely to feel certain obgliations that go beyond what every employee feels towards his or her supervisor. 
In my short time as a lawyer I sense that my male counter-parts are equally cognizant of the confidence entrusted to them by their superiors. By the same token I have met women lawyers who are relatively unconcerned with "duties to the profession" and other ethical guidelines.  I fall somewhere in the middle on this spectrum of honor and decorum. Some of the rules of confidentiality and professionalism seem unnecessary, antiquated, and even silly. 
This may all seem a little off topic - but my bottom line is this: trust yourself to know when you've made a mistake worth mentioning. Err on the side of caution - I think our bosses all assume we make mistakes and admitting them may buy you more not less credibility and respect.


We've talked about another kind of "mistake" on this site—crying, tearing up, or otherwise showing emotion on the job. One response people suggested was to apologize; but other commenters quickly disagreed. The thing about apologizing is: people often remember the apology more than whatever the apology was for. Jessie's right, of course, that there are going to be times when we need to alert bosses to mistakes. And our first duty is to practice good law. But beyond those baselines, I would err on the side of <i>not</i> preemptively apologizing for errors. Because everybody makes mistakes, and what's going to get you ahead is projecting confidence, not showing yourself second-guessing.


I think it depends on your making a judgment about the person you're working for. I remember 2 partners I worked for (in the same firm, next door offices) and my advice would be quite different depending on which partner was involved.
Partner 1 was old and a bit cynical, clearly thought none of us graduates knew anything anyway so he definitely rewarded owning up to mistakes. Perhaps because he was older and old school, he saw it as taking responsibility for your work and acknowledging the plain fact you don't know everything (or in his veiw much) at the beginning of your career. I know I definitely benefited from alerting him to my corrected or correctable mistakes.
Partner 2 was young and a bit brash, he was very quick on the uptake and it had been said of him that he got where he was by pretending he understood until he really did. It wasn't that he thought mistakes weren't inevitable, or that they made you a bad lawyer, he just had more respect for people who he could relate to as more like him. So if I alerted him to the same kinds of mistakes generally got a "well fix it and don't tell me about it".
 I don't think it hurt anyone's career really in either case but one was definitely more positive about it. I actually had an issue arise working for Partner 2 and I wasn't sure if I had the authority to do the "fix". I went to Partner 1 and asked his advice and he said go ahead, and that I did the right thing to run it past him (to him there was nothing worse than a junior running around doing things off their own bat that might be wrong) and no need to bother Partner 2 with it. I was grateful for the advice and I think it was good staff management. I think in general it is better that a partner knows what his lawyers are doing, even if it is perfectly sensible. Instilling fear and stress about seeking advice or validation for your actions is not helpful in my opinion.


I always turn myself in when I make mistakes if those mistakes are something that are in the least bit serious.  To me this includes when I have done anything that would make my firm or my supervisor look bad.  It sometimes means things that just make me look bad.  It does not include things that are purely internal or things that I have fixed that will never get back to my supervisor.  To me, if there is no chance that what I've done will get back to my supervisor that it isn't a reportable mistake.
If a mistake is pretty bad, I <u>always</u> deliver the news in person.  If the mistake is more simple, I will often just cc my supervisor on the email or voicemail that I'm using to try to fix it.
I "grew up", if you will, in a profession that valued candor and personal responsibility and it has served me well.  I think young attorneys often get criticized due to their reluctance to take personal responsibility for their actions and coming forward about a mistake is evidence that you are responsible.  For every "don't bother me with your little mistakes" that you get from a supervisor there is bound to be a "thank you for telling me" to match it.  Being a lawyer is about client service and a big part of that is managing risk.  Attorney's are, as a group, risk adverse so I think most would like to know when something has gone wrong in case there are things available to them to mitigate the impact.


Peg I agree with you wholeheartedly. Once I got a little more familiar with Partner 2 above I started to tell him matter-of-factly what I'd done and why whether he liked it or not. He came to accept that as my interpretation of my role in the firm - ie I'm not a partner, I don't take the liability for this stuff so I'm not going to let those who do be in the dark. He used to smile about it. Perhaps he thinks I don't have enough bluff and bluster to be a partner at 34 like him. And he's right. And I think that's a good thing.
I really think part of the problem that bad staff management practices put attorneys in the awkward position of not knowing what to do. We need to do the "right" thing (ie keep our superiors informed) but we also need to impress them with how we don't make mistakes. Good staff management practices strike that balance by making people comfortable with communicating mistakes and helping you learn the most you can from as well as minimizing them by broad guidance on the substantive issues AND on what is and is not worthy of notifying. The kind of policies I mean are the true open door and encouragement of candour and keeping them in the loop.
I know partners who would have a fit if you used the wrong font on a mere first draft of an internal client document. But I still don't think that's a mistake worthy of reporting unless the client raises with me (and they never did).
 We need to train partners better before we even talk about how to train attorneys better, well in my humble opinion anyway.


As long as you are not having to go to your boss constantly to fess up to mistakes, I think it is good that you were honest with your boss.  Ultimately, it shows integrity and that you take responsibility for your actions - all key ingredients to becoming an outstanding young attorney.
On a side note, just b/c another attorney has not fessed up to his own similar mistakes in the past does not mean that the partners are not aware of it.  Often the partners are more aware than what an associate might think.  They know the varying levels of competence of their associates:  strengths and weaknesses.


I think one of the general themes running through this discussions is worth pointing out:  other people are responsible for your work.  Sometimes it's a partner, sometimes a judge, and sometimes a client.  While you probably won't be calling your client to say you messed up, it's important to take responsibility for your actions and work on getting it fixed.  Many times you need the input of more experienced attorneys on the "fixing" part.  Yes, who you work for makes a difference on how you approach the problem/mistake, but twiddling your thumbs waiting for someone else to address it or bring it up is not an option.
I also agree with the comments about good firm management and creating an environment that allows young associates to talk with their supervisors about these kinds of issues in a forthright manner.
Great topic and discussion!


This is such a great topic - I hadn't ever thought about it really, but wow, great question - I know that is past jobs I have definitely owned up to my mistakes because of my conscience, but now I am wondering if fear or the desire to be seen as 'perfect' might change my behavior when I am an attorney.
I hope that it doesn't - and I hope that the decision to be up front about any mistakes won't hinder my career. I suppose the one thing that most drives me is the hope that when I am in a position which entails others working below me, I hope they would be comfortable admitting mistakes to me. Not only do I value trust and honesty, but previous commentors are right - the responsibility ultimately falls to superiors. They have the duty to supervise, but we all know that circumstanes and time simply don't allow for every partner to go over each associate's contribution with a fine toothed comb. For that reason, I sincerely hope my candor will be appreciated and that I never forget the stress and the learning curve when roles are someday reversed…


I’m a young associate and as a result am constantly making mistakes and learning from them.  By mistakes I don’t mean I sent the wrong thing to the client or missed a deadline but that I could have done something better.  (Perhaps it’s revealing of my personality or my firm that I see that as a mistake rather than a point of growth?)
This morning, I met with a partner to discuss a motion I have been working on.  He had sent me comments last night and I had dutifully (nervously!) made changes in advance of our meeting this morning, trying to correct my “errors.”  One of the problems with this particular motion is that the subject matter is technical and complex and so is the legal standard.  At the same time, it’s simple in the sense that it’s completely obvious that we should win the motion ... once you understand all the technical issues. 
For some reason, I felt a need to take responsibility for my “errors” (aren’t they really just the growing pains of a young associate?) with the partner.  In doing so, I said, “When I went back through I completely understood your comments.  Some of my statements of the standards had gotten a little bit sloppy.”  Immediately my critical internal self stood up and said “Sloppy ... did you really just characterize your work as sloppy?  In front of a Partner?”  Sloppy wasn’t really what I meant.  What I meant to say was that I was struggling to find the right words because the motion was technical and, at times, confusing.  As hard as I was trying to simplify things, I recognized, based on his comments, that what I had hoped was coming across, just wasn’t ... at least not yet. 
I thought about this post, which I had read recently, and wondered why I felt the need to admit the “mistake” in the first place.   The truth is, I’m fighting with a tough part of the law, on top of some extremely technical facts, and the motion is a great learning opportunity for me.  But the drive to be “perfect” in our world of associates is hard.  It doesn’t leave much room for you to grow, particularly when you’re new and not well-prepared because law school does not teach us how to be lawyers!  I wonder if failing to admit our mistakes only continues to perpetuate the cycle.  While I’m not saying that I will repeat my mistake of characterizing my own work in such a negative way again, shouldn’t there be room to learn and grow in our profession?

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