“The buck stops here” was a phrase popularized by President Harry S. Truman.[i] He kept a sign on his desk with that phrase on it.[ii] The phrase screams responsibility and refers to the idea that the President has to make decisions and accept the responsibility for those decisions.[iii] While attempting to evade blame in this regard has several names – buck passing, passing the buck, or (playing) the blame game, scapegoating – – it all means the same thing – – it refers to attributing or assigning blame elsewhere instead of accepting responsibility for one’s actions. It is also known as “scapegoating.”
With limited exceptions, attorneys are responsible for the actions of their subordinates (whether subordinates attorneys, paralegals, and/or legal assistants). This is common knowledge, taught in law school, and is canonized in the various versions of the professional rules of responsibility.[iv] The rule is straightforward; common sense.
Every now-and-again, I have witnessed attorneys (whether younger and older) blame their assistant or paralegal for all sorts of things while in court. For whatever reason, the judge, annoyed that the attorney failed to do something, and confronts the attorney about. The issues range from failing to file a motion that the attorney promised to file to failing to appear because of some snafu with the court date. In response to the court’s inquiry, the attorney blames the subordinate to shift the blame elsewhere.
It goes without saying that mistakes happen from time to time. People forget things, write them down incorrectly, or simply neglect to accomplish certain tasks. I get it, we are all human. No one is perfect (no matter how hard they try).
But … responses like, “my apologies Your Honor, but my assistant took down the wrong date” or “I’m sorry Judge, my paralegal forgot to file the motion” or anything that shifts blame from the attorney in court to someone else who works for the attorney is flatly an incorrect answer. The proper response is that the attorney made the mistake – – “I failed to file the motion.” Own it, apologize, and try to make amends (and try to not make it habit).
Admittedly, it is embarrassing to have to accept blame for the mistakes, but the alternative looks awful. Optics are everything in this area. Any attorney making excuses for the subordinate’s actions makes the attorney look like an immature, legal amateur or hack. Be a professional. Scapegoating your assistant, paralegal, or subordinate is never acceptable. Never. And the court will never give you a pass for blaming the mistake on someone else (because you are the attorney and the “buck stops with” you).
When an assistant, paralegal, or subordinate attorney makes a mistake – you as the attorney needs to own it. Own it as your own because you are the attorney, and it is your own mistake. It is your bar number on the pleading or motion. It is your signature on the document. It is your responsibility. Period. End of sentence. It is non-negotiable. Even if your assistance does something unforgivable like faxing a picture of his butt to the court with “kiss it” written on it – – you as the attorney must own it because you are the attorney, and it is your mistake.
Please do not misunderstand me. Mistakes happen and serious mistakes in professional judgment by a subordinate should be delt with privately outside of the courtroom. There is no need to air your dirty laundry with the judge (or opposing counsel). From a perception standpoint, blaming a subordinate for something that was done on your behalf (even if done incorrectly, improperly, or inappropriately) just looks terrible. And from a professional standpoint, is bad leadership.
Additionally, if your assistant, paralegal, or subordinate is a true professional – – then they will (or should) recognize that you are a true professional and leader when they hear about you standing up in court to take responsibility for one of their mistakes. Leaders stand up for their subordinates even when they make a mistake or do something wrong. It is how never-wavering trust and true respect are earned with your subordinates (because you have their backs – – even when you are taking flak in court for their mistakes (because the mistake is ultimately yours)).
My advice is simple – – never publicly blame a subordinate for a mistake – – never. Grow up and be a professional. Always, be a professional. And if a mistake happens (or your subordinate does something unforgiveable and stupid like cursing out the judge’s judicial assistant), then publicly take responsibility for the mistake with the court (or opposing counsel if the error involved them). It is the right thing to do. Trust me. Although it may not be enjoyable at the time, you will earn all the trust and credibility with the opposing counsel or the court because you did the right thing. You will also earn the respect of your subordinate. And as one judge used to tell everyone in his court- – “all an attorney really has is their name.”
Anthony Candela is the Trial Dog and a Board-Certified attorney. He opened the Candela Law Firm, P.A. in 2014 and handles criminal trials and appeals (as well as estate planning, wills, and trusts). He received his J.D. from Duquesne University School of Law in 2000 and his B.A. in Political Science from King’s College in 1996. As an expert in criminal law and procedure, he has tried over a hundred cases to verdict. Since 2008, he has been certified and recertified by the Florida Bar in Criminal Trial three times. He has also argued several dozen appeals. In the federal system, he is admitted to the Middle District of Florida and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeal. #candelalawfirm #thetrialdog
If can assist you with any criminal questions, then please do not hesitate to contact www.candelalawfirm.com or Anthony Candela at (813) 417-3645 to discuss your case.
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[i] President of the United States (1945 to 1953).
[ii] … But “the buck stops here” actually means something different altogether, or at least it did to Truman. From the Truman Library’s website:
On more than one occasion President Truman referred to the desk sign in public statements. For example, in an address at the National War College on December 19, 1952 Mr. Truman said, “You know, it’s easy for the Monday morning quarterback to say what the coach should have done, after the game is over. But when the decision is up before you – and on my desk I have a motto which says The Buck Stops Here’ – the decision has to be made.” In his farewell address to the American people given in January 1953, President Truman referred to this concept very specifically in asserting that, “The President–whoever he is–has to decide. He can’t pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That’s his job.”
So the president’s decisions are his alone to make. That’s very different than the idea that the president must take responsibility for decisions he didn’t even make in the first place. …
[iv] Florida Rule of Professional Responsibility Rule 4-5.3