Bar News - February 19, 2014
President's Perspective: A Good Lawyer Knows How to Fix a Mistake
By: Jaye Rancourt
I’ve told this story before, at numerous swearing-in ceremonies for new bar members, so I apologize if you’ve already heard it, but it bears repeating, because we all make mistakes.
When I was a fairly new attorney at the New Hampshire Public Defender Program, I was representing a man accused of felonious sexual assault in a jury trial. Early in the trial I made an error that I knew would jeopardize my client’s ability to receive a fair trial from that particular jury. I asked the judge for a brief recess to discuss the situation with my client.
I told my client, who was incarcerated during the trial, that I had made a mistake and explained the situation to him. I told him his options, which included requesting a mistrial. He understood that meant he would return to custody pending another trial. He agreed with me that, while not ideal, it was the best option.
Prior to returning to the courtroom to request the mistrial, I told my client that he would be justified in asking for new counsel, given the mistake I had made. I told him that I thought the court would grant the request. My client then said something that has stuck with me for my entire legal career. He said: “My father was a carpenter and he told me that the difference between a good carpenter and a bad carpenter is that a good carpenter knows how to fix his mistakes.” He added, “I figure the same holds true for lawyers, so I’ll stick with you.”
I then walked into a full courtroom and stood before the judge, my client, and my colleagues to admit my mistake and request the mistrial, which the judge granted.
Ultimately, after the second trial, my client was found not guilty and left the courtroom a free man. A good ending for him, and a good learning experience for me.
I have made other mistakes in my legal career, though thankfully, not the same one. The words of my client come back to me time and time again, particularly when I was on the Professional Conduct Committee as the vice president of the New Hampshire Bar Association.
Oftentimes, it is not the first mistake that gets an attorney into trouble with the PCC. It is more commonly the failure to admit the mistake and the failure to fix the mistake that causes ethical problems for the attorney down the line.
We are all human and, try as we might to be perfect, we will make mistakes in our careers. Usually, there is a way to fix the mistake. And while I certainly understand that it is uncomfortable to stand before a client, colleagues, and the court and admit to doing something wrong, sometimes it is the only way to fulfill our duty to our clients and the justice system.