I hate to make mistakes as a lawyer, but I have made some whoppers. How does one deal with them? I think that being a good neighbor, as God calls us to be, means that we disclose our professional mistakes and deal with them directly and in good faith.
In one case, I had recommended what I thought was brilliant, if original, tax-saving estate planning strategy to a client. She and her attorney son in New England agreed with it and it was implemented. When she died, I asked my partner Juan to handle the settlement. In the course of his review, he came across that estate planning strategy, and he told me that he believed that it did not work. I reviewed the matter again and, with the benefit of hindsight, it looked like a problem to me too. A big problem.
I called the decedent’s son and told him about the matter.
He promptly hired a New England malpractice lawyer who wrote me a nasty letter. He also hired a Palm Beach probate lawyer to handle the rest of the estate.
I met with the malpractice lawyer, the new probate lawyer, and two of my NY partners at the NY offices of my firm. It was a dreadful trip to take from Miami to NY, for the estate stood to lose over a million dollars, if I had indeed been mistaken.
At the meeting, my NY partners said that they did not necessarily agree that I had made a mistake and instead believed that I had, in fact, saved the family a lot of money. They demanded that the new probate lawyer take my position on the Estate Tax Return, while making a full disclosure on that return of the suspect strategy. They were not asking that anything be covered up.
After I got home to Miami, the Palm Beach lawyer called me. He said that he was impressed that I had spoken up about the problem and not attempted to hide it from the client or the IRS. He said that he saw in the matter a mistake that he could very well have made. He also said the he would present the strategy fairly on the estate tax return, and that we would see what would happen.
About six months later he called me. My secretary told me he was on the telephone, and with trepidation I picked up the call. He said that the return had been accepted by the IRS fully and completely. He was nearly as happy as I was, and since then he and I have become great friends.
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