Taking responsibility as a lawyer

I represented a couple who purchased a new construction condominium.  They were, and are, terribly nice people who, like many of my clients, are purchasing for the first time.   During our initial consult, we discussed my belief that, in order to close on time, your bank and your mortgage rep need to be completely on top of things.   No excuses.   I think you know what’s coming.

Despite numerous delays on the part of the seller, we were still looking to close within a somewhat reasonable time frame (when it comes to new construction condominiums in New York City).  As if on cue, we received word that the mortgage broker had potentially messed up the deadlines on some of the documentation, thereby delaying the closing.  When trying to contact Mr. Mortgage (real names have been changed), he refused to call back….for several days.  Numerous attempts at contact via phone, email, carrier pigeon, etc., didn’t result in any word back.  In the midst of this, the clients were rightfully ridiculously nervous.  This was followed by a healthy amount of further “delays” , which resulted in the client’s paying for things they shouldn’t have paid for at the closing.  They didn’t care at that point. They wanted their keys and they wanted to be done with it.  At the closing table, there was this precious window of opportunity for Mr. Mortgage to make things right in front of my clients, the Real Estate broker, the Sponsor, and the bank.  A chance to remove any tarnish on his reputation and work with these people again on future deals (NYC is much much smaller than you think.)  Admit the mistake, pay the small fee or at least vouch for it, and be a hero.  Nope.  Woooommppp Wommmmppp.  He refused.  Coincidentally, on my way home, two people rode with me in an elevator.  In mid-conversation, one women said to to the other “No one trusts anyone anymore because no one takes responsibility.  They just pass the buck.”  And that should teach us (lawyers, brokers,professionals, etc.) a lesson: Take  Responsibility.

I represented my first Real Estate clients at the ripe old age of 24.  I was beyond nervous and, although seemingly confident, I nevertheless knew that things would come up with which I would need help.  I had mentors, which was great, but a last minute issue came up and I couldn’t reach them.   I ended up completely messing up something at the closing which resulted in an adjournment (this rarely happens-almost always because someone from somewhere has tragically died or there is a monster amount of traffic somewhere).  Of course, like any closing, there were about 394 different lawyers, and, of course, they all charged something due to the delay.  I first attempted to calm my clients down after they incessantly berated me (they were right) and then I paid the fees associated with the delays.  I lost money on that deal and I didn’t have much money to waste at that time.  The lesson I learned, however, was invaluable : Admit your mistakes.  Take your lumps.  Accept responsibility. Move on. It has served me well in my years of practice.

Too often lawyers and other professionals advertise an air of invincibility.  In pictures, we pose before bookshelf after bookshelf, loaded with law books we purchased at garage sales and haven’t opened in years. We puff our chests in our suits and promise aggressive and efficient representation.  What you don’t see, when the photographer walks away, are the phone calls from one lawyer to another desperately seeking an answer to a pertinent question.  You don’t see the suits come off while we aimlessly scour Lexis or WestLaw, looking for cases which will help your position.  We desperately want to hide any sense that we may make a mistake.  We’re taught that way (and it’s why we spend thousands of dollars on malpractice insurance).  But, every once in a while, when we make a mistake (I’m about all professionals here) it’s better that we own up to it.  There’s some decency in saying “I’m sorry” and doing what needs to be done to correct it.  My guess is that, you, the potential client, respects this more than circular answers that make you scratch your head.  In our world of online reviews and recommendations you’re bombarded with messages about how amazing a firm or a brokerage is (we’re guilty of this also).  Everything seems sanitized and shiny at the same time.  I think, perhaps, it may be high time to wash the artificial sheen of our corporate messages and declare that, yes, we will do our very best in dealing with your issues.  We’re experienced and we’ve seen a lot before.  But, also, in the unlikely event that we do mess things up for any number of reasons that people mess things up, we’ll look at you and say: “My fault, but I’ll make it right”.


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