Mitigating (& Embracing) Mistakes: A Law Firm’s Guide To Trial & Error

Scientists admit “we were wrong,” this summer about “inert” Pluto, which they now know to be a “very active” dwarf planet, reports The Independent.

Some might wonder why this even makes headlines. Scientists are wrong all the time. In the 19th century, Sir William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, was the first person to use physics to calculate the ages of the Earth and sun–and he was only off by about a multiple of 50.

Chemist Linus Pauling was confident that the structure of DNA was a triple heliz. Unfortunately for him, Francis Crick and James D. Watson discovered the double helix structure of DNA that same year in 1953.

And, among the many famous equations created by Einstein was one called the the cosmological constant, which he introduced because he thought the universe was static. We now know the universe is expanding and Einstein called the cosmological constant his “greatest blunder.

Nevertheless, some of science’s greatest blunders have actually resulted in even bigger breakthroughs. In the ase of Kelvin, the calculations themselves were ground-breaking.

For Einstein, the cosmological constant was eventually re-introduced by scientists once they realized the universe was expanding at an accelerated pace. Finally, for Pauling, his triple-helix structure may have been malconceived, but the two-time Nobel Prize winner contributed so much to science already, the incident reminds us that mistakes, well, they make us human.

Lawyers are only human, too. Sure, law firms are lush with Type A personalities, perfectionists, and over-achievers, but to achieve anything novel requires taking a long road paved with mistakes.

A law firm’s first-years are often afraid to speak up, act up, or go home for that matter; instead, they reread every brief, every motion until it’s flawless and they’re blameless. Nowadays, in the legal profession, associates get little experience in the courtroom where there’s a trial, but no room for error.

However, managers in every field agree, it’s vital for rising stars to gain first-hand experience. There will, of course, be mistakes. Attorneys are known for having tempers in these moments.

But Kathryn Schulz—expert on being wrong (no, seriously)—would have us believe that a series of cultural and learned behavior has led society to believe “rightness” equals “goodness” and that this is a huge social and practical problem.

Embracing being wrong is, in fact, a key to how our businesses and people thrive.

According to Schulz, here’s why.

“Do you remember that Loony Tunes cartoon where there’s this pathetic coyote who’s always chasing and never catching a roadrunner? In pretty much every episode of this cartoon there’s a moment where the coyote is chasing the roadrunner and the roadrunner runs off a cliff, which s fine, he’s a bird, he can fly. But the thing is that the coyote’s fine too. He just keeps running—right up until the moment that he looks down and realizes that he’s in mid-air. That’s when we’re wrong about something…we’re already wrong, we’re already in trouble, but we feel like we’re on solid ground… [the feeling of being wrong] feels like being right.”

We’ve all had instances when we are over confident about our rightness.

For example, we’ve discovered the best defense, the best argument for the case based on the facts. In these moments, generally, we assume anybody who disagrees with us is ignorant of the evidence or of the logic to which we ourselves are privy. As soon as we become aware that these same opponents—either our adversary on the opposite bench or sometimes our own second chair—do have access to the same information, we assume it’s still a deficiency on their part. Correct puzzle pieces, wrong combination. If, in the end, these people still disagree, our last assumption is that they’re enemies, distorting the truth “for their own malevolent purposes.”

It is this attachment to our rightness that leads to the mistreatment of colleagues and other unprofessional behavior in the office, but, just as important, it prevents us from making mistakes that can lead to breakthroughs.

Students attend law school because they are united in the same desires to problem solve. When presented with a case and facts in that case, attorneys must decide what is the best combination of arguments to convince a judge or jury to award a desirable verdict. Law students should be the first to admit cases are not always won by “rightness.” So why the obsession with being right?

While it’s no goal to be wrong, an incorrect answer by a risk-taking associate or naïve first-year should not be a punishable offense. Instead, turn it around. Some of the most interesting products and innovative concepts have emerged from trial and error (Also read, Duly Noted)–a process you should consider rewarding at your firm.

For Schulz’s entire presentation, watch the video here.

Just because your firm embraces trial and error, doesn’t mean its mistakes must be costly. The loss of trade secrets–ranging from proprietary formulas to confidential information to production methodologies–can have devastating impacts for a company. Whether a formula for a product, a unique method of conducting business, or another type of sensitive material, companies want to ensure that their investments in products, employees, and processes do not fall into a competitor’s hands and cause damage.

Take C4CM’s audio course “Counsel’s Guide to Trade Secret Protection: Preventing and Avoiding Costly Errors and Penalties,” on Wednesday, September 16, 2015 from 2:00 PM to 3:15 PM Eastern.

This information-packed CLE webinar explores best practices for preventing and avoiding costly errors and penalties when dealing with trade secrets, third parties and litigation. You will also gain legal insights on how to ensure compliance and keep trade secrets a secret.


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