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The Chicken Fax

by Will Graebe |

We all have moments in our practice that we would rather forget. What follows is mine. I was an eager young associate who wanted to impress my client and the partners in the firm. We were handling a tax case that had something to do with inventory tax and the valuation of baby chicks. I had researched the IRS Tax Code, regulations, tax treaties, and IRS rulings and was confident that the IRS agent’s position was untenable. I wanted to display my legal prowess to my client, so I prepared a letter to the client explaining our superior position and the IRS agent’s incompetence.

I did not want to waste any time getting this legal masterpiece to my client, so I faxed the letter. Returning to my office with a sense of pride, I sat down at my desk and looked at the fax cover sheet. Wait, something is not right, I thought. That is not the client’s fax number. That is the IRS agent’s fax number. Panic set in. I knew I had to tell the senior partner on the case about my mistake. With my tail between my legs, I went to his office and confessed. I recall trying to put some positive spin on the error. I explained how the IRS agent would surely bow to our position after seeing the strength of our case. To this day, I have no idea whether the IRS agent received and read the letter. We eventually settled the controversy.

American humorist and author Samuel Levenson said, “You must learn from the mistakes of others. You can't possibly live long enough to make them all yourself." With that in mind, let me offer you the many ways in which my mistake offers teachable moments.

  1. Lesson #1: Details and focus matter. Pay attention to the task in front of you. Studies have shown that we are more likely to make mistakes when we are multitasking. So, be mindful of the present moment when completing a task. Do not allow time pressures to distract you. You will spend more time fixing your mistake than the extra time it takes to do it right in the first place.

  2. Lesson #2: When you make a mistake, understand your ethical obligations to your client. The North Carolina State Bar has ruled that a lawyer must disclose “material mistakes” to clients. 2015 Formal Ethics Opinion 4 | North Carolina State Bar (ncbar.gov) I do not recall whether we told the client about my fax to the IRS. This would have been one of those gray areas under 2015 FEO 4. In cases like this, you may want to call one of the claims attorneys at Lawyers Mutual to discuss whether the mistake is “material.” If you are still uncertain, err on the side of disclosure.

  3. Lesson #3: If you happen to be the unintended recipient of an email or other communication from the opposing party, the State Bar has ruled that you are ethically prohibited from reading the email and must return it to the sender. It can be tempting to read such communications. Resist and return.

  4. Lesson #4: See your mistakes as opportunities. Research shows that, if we have a mindset of opportunity in the face of mistakes, we will grow from those mistakes. I learned from my mistake. I never again sent a fax or email to an unintended recipient. When I send an email now, I always double-check the address before hitting the send button.

  5. Lesson #5: When your colleagues, staff, or attorneys you supervise make mistakes, view this as a teaching opportunity. Do not shame the person. That will only cause the person to lose confidence and make it more likely that he will repeat the same mistake.

  6. Lesson #6: Give yourself grace and self-compassion. Remember that we are all human. Everyone makes mistakes. Talk to yourself the way that a good friend might talk to you if you shared your mistake with them. And remember to keep your mistake in perspective. It probably isn’t nearly as important or consequential as you think it is in the moment.

About the Author

Will Graebe

Will Graebe came to Lawyers Mutual in 1998 as claims counsel. In 2009, Will became the Vice President of the Claims Department and served in that role until 2019. After a two-year sabbatical, Will returned to Lawyers Mutual as claims counsel and relationship manager. In his role as claims counsel, Will focuses primarily on claims related to estates and trusts, business transactions and real estate matters. Will received his J.D. from Wake Forest University School of Law and his undergraduate degree from Stetson University. Prior to joining Lawyers Mutual, will worked in private practice with the law firm of Pinna, Johnston & Burwell.  

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