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It’s 3 a.m. and you wake up in a cold sweat. Your mind is running 100 miles an hour and you have a haunting feeling that an important deadline has just gone by. You try to ignore it and go back to sleep, telling yourself you’re being paranoid, but the lump in your throat and sinking feeling in your stomach won’t let you rest. You finally give in, put on your clothes and begrudgingly drag yourself in to the office at 3:30 a.m. to dig out that file and your calendar. You count, count again and just to be safe, count one more time. You finally let out a huge sigh of relief and a faint smile crosses your face. This time you escaped the guillotine, but next time you may not be so lucky. While it doesn’t happen often, even good lawyers make mistakes and occasionally miss deadlines. In fact, when I started practicing law, one of our senior partners told me, “It’s not if you will make a mistake, but when, because it happens to everyone. … What matters is how you handle yourself when that dreadful day arrives.” Now that I have been practicing law for several years, I understand what he was talking about. There are ways to handle mistakes that can exacerbate the situation or diffuse it. Handle things well and that mistake may soon be a bad memory. MISSING DEADLINES Missing a court-ordered deadline is one of the scariest discoveries a young lawyer, or any lawyer for that matter, can make. While you may think the first thing to do is pack up your office, there are many options before throwing in the towel. The first thing to do is come clean. Don’t hide the problem or fix it on your own; that will only make a bad situation worse. Instead, immediately tell the partner you work with about the problem. But before you drag yourself into his or her office for a meeting that will be incredibly unpleasant, research the ramifications of missing the deadline and know what alternatives you have. When explaining the situation, have alternatives ready and suggest what you think is best to do from there. Being prepared will not only soften the blow but will let the partner know you are still beneficial to him or her. After you and the partner agree on a course of action, follow through with it carefully and thoroughly. So what are those alternatives? While each deadline has its own ramifications and alternatives, there are some common ways to try to cure the situation. One of the easiest ways is to simply ask the other side for more time. While this might sound absurd to a new lawyer, many experienced lawyers know that professionalism and professional courtesies still run strong today. You may be surprised at how often the other side will cut you a break hoping that you will return the favor someday. One of my colleagues, who found himself in the unfortunate situation of missing a deadline that waived substantive rights, called the other side and fell on his sword. He explained that he was unaware of the deadline and let it pass. Much to his surprise, the lawyer on the other side said, “When I was a young lawyer, I screwed up something huge like this and the attorney on the other side told me he’d let it slide if I promised to return the favor someday to another poor lawyer. Now I’m returning that favor, but you have to promise me that you will pass along this good fortune to the next attorney that needs it.” With that, my friend was off the hook and promises to this day to return the favor to the first person that needs it. So remember, before all hope is lost, call the other side and ask for an extension. You may be pleasantly surprised at the response. If you are not lucky enough to deal with a cooperative opposing counsel or if this is not a deadline that can be extended by agreement, all hope is not lost. In most instances, it’s possible to petition the court for leave to file a past-due pleading. In state court, the chances of having the judge show mercy on you are better than in federal court. In federal court, judges tend to be more rigid with the rules and less likely to bend them, unless you have a good reason for needing an extension of time. Just remember, when drafting the motion, try to explain truthfully why you missed the deadline. If you were in trial on another case or out of the office for a while, include that but take blame for your actions. Judges usually respond more favorably when lawyers take the blame rather than giving excuses or pointing fingers. You may also want to discuss with the partner you work with whether it’s better for you to argue the motion. Judges seem to give younger lawyers more slack than those they feel are older and should know better. If you strike out with the judge and with opposing counsel, there may be a few more case-by-case things to do. Be creative. Try negotiating with the other side to come up with a compromise, or schedule a mediation before the hearing on your motion to try to resolve the case. By thinking outside of the box, you can hopefully reach a conclusion that is good for you and your client. Always remember that your client and your client’s position come first. Never do anything to compromise that, or one small — albeit serious — mistake could result in the loss of an important client relationship. MISSING THE BOAT ON A PROJECT Missing a deadline is a serious event and one to avoid at all costs. But there are more minor mistakes that new lawyers make. Like missing deadlines, if these are handled well, it can make the difference between an average associate and a superstar. Think, for instance, of a time when you received an assignment and for one reason or another you missed the boat. Or think of the time when you were so busy, you just “mailed it in” (as my boss likes to say), meaning you threw something together without much thought just to turn it in on time. Sound familiar? It happens to all of us. But when a partner returns an assignment and says he or she is disappointed, you may think you have blown your chance of ever working with that partner again. While that might be true for a few partners, the majority will give you another chance. And since you don’t have a longstanding reputation built yet, it is more important than ever to deal effectively with these mistakes early on in your career. To make the partner interested in working with you again, don’t ignore the problem and avoid eye contact in the hall. That sends a message that you are not interested in his or her comments or learning from mistakes. Instead, take your memo or brief into the partner’s office and ask him or her to go through it with you. Be genuinely interested in learning from your mistakes rather than defensive. Then ask the partner if you can redo the assignment. If there is no time crunch, you will be surprised at how many will give you another bite at the apple. If time is of the essence and you can’t redo that project, ask the partner to give you another project. Assure him or her that you have learned from your mistake and it will not happen again. When you receive another project from that partner, do your best work. Make sure you impress with your next project, and you will see how quickly that one dreadful project gets erased from the partner’s mind. The important thing to remember is to be proactive and ask for another chance. The partner will not usually seek you out; you must seek him or her out. If you don’t, you may never work for that partner again. No one likes to talk about making mistakes, but we are all human. There are days that things won’t go exactly as planned. Handle these mistakes in the best way possible, and there will be a better tomorrow. Dionne Carney Rainey is an associate with Jenkens & Gilchrist in Dallas. She focuses on commercial litigation and media law matters.

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