As many people within the legal profession know from personal experience, to err is to be a lawyer, and lawyers can slip up just like any other kind of professionals. Perhaps the main way that lawyers make mistakes in their everyday work is with typos, either by spelling something incorrectly or by making grammatical errors in a document being drafting. Most of the time, typos are harmless, and this website and other legal news outlets have poked fun at some of the glaring and hilarious typos that lawyers have infamously made over the years. I readily admit that I routinely make typos in my articles, and I rarely think twice about them since they are a natural part of any kind of writing. However, sometimes typos can have serious consequences, and lawyers should do all they can to avoid typos in many types of situations.
Typos can make someone look less professional, which can impact an attorney’s ability to originate clients and pursue certain employment opportunities. Individuals want to work with lawyers who are detail-oriented and who do not make mistakes. Making a typo might convey to someone that an attorney is not the type of person who will take their matter seriously.
I was once working on a team trying to originate a given book of business. Someone from our firm made a typo in an email on an email chain that included people from our firm and people from the business we were trying to sign as a client. The client pointed out the typo to the lawyer who made the mistake and it felt super embarrassing to have made that mistake in an email to the prospective client.
Sometimes, typos can be just plain embarrassing and can travel with a lawyer for years to come. When I was working in Biglaw, an associate was tasked with drafting a research email and sending it to a bunch of people from our firm and the client company in an email chain. The associate wanted to write “privileged and confidential” in the email, which is a common practice of lawyers attempting to conjure the attorney-client privilege and the work-product protection to cover their exchanges. However, the associate somehow wrote “privileged and congenital” in the email. Since “congenital” is kind of close to “confidential” maybe this was an auto-correct situation, but I am not sure why the typo was made.
However, pretty much everyone at our firm and the client team thought that this was a pretty funny mistake. Numerous lawyers and staff brought up the story of this typo in conversations around the office, and people poked fun at the associate who made the mistake for a long time. Lawyers do not want to be on the receiving end of such ridicule, and by reviewing their work product a little more carefully they can lessen the chances that they will make a mistake that will be talked about around an office.
Typos can also have a tangible impact on the representation of a client. We have all heard of infamous scrivener’s error cases in which a misplaced comma or some other small detail can massively impact a client. If I’m not mistaken this own website has covered a few such instances over the years. Of course, there are legal doctrines that can be relied upon to blunt the impact of a typo to a representation, but lawyers cannot always depend on the flexibility of courts and the kindness of certain legal doctrines when trying to countermand the effects of a typo.
Earlier in my career, I was sitting in court waiting to argue a motion when I heard a typo being used as the basis for one of the boldest summary judgment oppositions I had ever heard. The case involved two plaintiffs who were related, but the lawyer filing the summary judgment has only asked that “plaintiff’s” complaint be dismissed and used the word “plaintiff’s” instead of “plaintiffs’” in his motion papers. Of course, this is not uncommon, and lawyers usually copy and paste legal papers without regard to the singular or plural or other details that make each case unique.
In any event, the lawyer opposing the motion said that the motion only involved one of the plaintiffs and not both of them. He conveyed that at most, the summary judgment motion should be granted against only one of his clients. The attorney filing the motion attempted to make an oral motion to correct the record to state that he meant both plaintiffs when filing the summary judgment papers, but the judge said that she would take this typo argument under advisement. I never learned if the summary judgment motion was successfully opposed because of the typo, but that typo might have provided the other attorney the best argument for avoiding summary judgment in his case.
All told, typos are usually not a big deal in the legal profession, but sometimes they can lead to ridicule and negative inferences. As a result, attorneys should do all they can to ensure that their papers are free from typos.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at [email protected].