What do you do when you f****d up?


The other day an attorney asked me, “What do you say to your client when he says “you f***d up and I’m not going to pay you?”

I told him that if he did do something wrong, the answer is easy: admit it, fix it, and be prepared to offer a refund.

Don’t blame others for your mistake. Be honest about what you did or didn’t do. Your client will understand and respect you for admitting it. Then, do whatever you have to do to fix the problem.

The good news is that when you do the right thing after making a mistake, when you fix things to your client’s satisfaction, they often feel a stronger allegiance to you. You didn’t try to hide it, you took responsibility and respected them enough to admit your mistake. And, of course, you fixed the problem.

Even if the problem cannot be fixed, if you bite the bullet and offer to pay compensation, most of the time you can save the relationship. So when you mess up, see it not so much as a problem but an opportunity.

Of course the next thing you need to do is to figure out why you made the mistake and make sure it doesn’t happen again. Ask yourself some questions:

  • Are you taking on too much work?
  • Are you taking on work outside your core competencies?
  • Are you promising too much or too soon?
  • Would a checklist help?
  • Could you get someone to help you?
  • Are you allowing enough time to review your work before the deadline?

The most successful people in the world often attribute their success to having made more mistakes than anyone else. They learned from those mistakes and got better at what they do. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes or admit to them. Use them to get better.

But we’re not done with the subject.

What do you do when a client blames you and accuses you of making a mistake you did not make? Clients often blame their lawyer when they don’t get the results they want. Do you have to take the hit?

Not at all. When you aren’t at fault, stand firm. Show the client that you did everything you were supposed to do, everything you could do, and that whatever happened was the result of something outside of your control. If the facts are on your side, and you handle things firmly and respectfully, in time, most clients will see the light. Often, they will apologize.

But we’re still not done.

You will have far fewer unhappy and ready-to-blame-you clients by managing your clients’ expectations at the beginning of the case, rather than trying to explain things at the end. Clients need to acknowledge, before you take their money, that:

  • You don’t promise results of any kind (other than best efforts)
  • They understand the risks and contingencies you have spelled out for them
  • They have declined certain options or a course of conduct you have recommended
  • They know what you will do for them and also what you will not do

You can’t be so heavy handed about this that you scare the client off, but you do need to make sure the client understands, from the beginning, what to expect of you and their case. Then, if something goes wrong, it will be clear that you are not the one to blame.

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