Helping Law Students Learn How to Make Mistakes

By: Professor Meghan Boone

“More people would learn from their mistakes if they weren’t so busy denying them.”
– Harold J. Smith

I know what you are thinking – this post must be incorrectly titled. Surely, the author means to discuss how to help law students avoid making mistakes, right? Wrong. I am talking about the fine art of making mistakes, which I argue is critical for the long term professional success of our students.

As a child, I learned to sail in a small wooden pram. The first lesson involved an instructor taking me out into the middle of the bay and intentionally capsizing the boat. Before I learned to sail, she explained, I had to learn how to capsize. Why? Because eventually I would capsize and when I inevitably did it was crucial that I understand how to right the boat and get myself back in it – or at least avoid drowning until someone could rescue me.

The same principles apply when talking about the practice of law. Working as a new lawyer will inevitably lead to mistakes. The practice of law is complicated, and the learning curve is steep. Accepting that mistakes are unavoidable for our students, we must endeavor to give them the skills they will need to successfully navigate those mistakes without risking permanent harm to their co-workers, their clients, or their professional reputation.

While a Clinical Teaching Fellow at the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown Law, I taught a seminar aimed to do just that. The seminar, titled Recovering from Errors, was offered as part of Georgetown’s externship program. As part of the seminar, the students and I collaboratively developed a Mistake Flowchart, which is recreated at the end of this post.

The first stop on the flow chart was a BIG, RED stop sign that reminded them that before freaking out/making a hasty decision/running away, they should simply stop and take at least one, full, complete breath. Mistakes are often made worse by poor choices in the immediate aftermath of the original mistake. Taking even a small pause reduces the chance that a minor mistake turns into a major mistake because of a regrettable reaction.

Next, the chart asks the student to clearly identify the mistake. At this stage in the process, I encourage students not to focus on the “who, how, or why” of the problem – just the “what.” If they get caught up in who made the mistake, why it’s not their fault, or how it happened, they won’t be able to focus on clearly understanding what happened that shouldn’t have happened (and thus also can’t focus on how to make it un-happen). These other questions are important, but they should come later.

The middle of the chart walks students through the process of identifying what knowledge they have about how to fix the mistake, how to gather the resources to do so, and how to report the mistake in a way that shows that they are both accepting responsibility and proactively offering solutions.

Finally, the chart walks students through the process of reflecting about the mistake so as to avoid it in the future. This is the appropriate time to contemplate those earlier questions – why and how the mistake happened. This process of reflection is important not only to learn from the experience but also to put the mistake in the context of the big picture.

Using the Mistake Flowchart, I had students work through some common (and some not-so-common) errors that they might make as junior attorneys. I reveal to them at the end of the exercise that each of the mistakes they discussed was one that I or someone I knew had made in the practice.  Revealing this helped students to see that while mistakes are certainly stress-inducing, they don’t have to be career-ending.

I hope my students will never need my Mistake Flowchart. Realistically, however, I know they will. And I hope that when that day comes they know how to right the boat and keep sailing.


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