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My Biggest Mistake: Paul Rhodes

THERE was a day in September 1978, when I thought that my greatest mistake was deciding to change my career and take up the law. The mistake I made that day was one that taught me a great deal.

I was a 36-year-old articled clerk at Dibb Lupton, having just completed the course for the Law Society Part II examinations, my first exams for 15 years. My first spell was in commercial property conveyancing. In those days the exam course gave you no practical understanding of what work was like in a solicitors' office. It taught some law, but nothing of practice and procedure.

On my first completion Dibb Lupton was acting for the purchaser. I was given the file and instructions on what I was to collect from the vendor. But first I was sent to the firm's bank to pick up the bank draft for pounds 65,000. I had been given a lecture on bank drafts, and told they were as good as cash. So I put it into my inside pocket.

Then it was off to the offices of a firm of solicitors. I went through my checklist of what I was supposed to pick up, and gave what I was supposed to give, namely the duly executed conveyance - and the bank draft. My hand went to my inside pocket - but no bank draft.

In the past I had faced a howling sales force over commission arrangements and had to explain to an executive committee why my division was behind its profit forecast. But I have never experienced such a feeling of panic as I did when the bank draft was not in my inside pocket.

I went through the file and through every piece of clothing I was wearing - but still no bank draft. The solicitor on the other side was sympathetic, but said, of course, that completion could not take place - there was no bank draft. He suggested I call my office and explain the situation. I did, and was instructed to return.

In fear, and more particularly embarrassment, I reported in and was told that never in the 240-odd year history of Dibb Lupton had any articled clerk been so stupid as to lose either a bag of sovereigns or a bank draft. I took it like a man, though I felt like a mouse.

My only concern was, having been told that the draft was as good as money, what was going to happen about the pounds 65,000? On an articled clerk's salary of pounds 3,750 per annum, I was facing penury for the rest of my life.

All, however, was not lost. The draft had been found in the street outside the bank by a passer-by who handed it in at the bank. Contrary to my belief, it was possible to stop payment on a bank draft, and this had been done by the office within one minute of my trembling phone call.

There had been no loss to the firm: everybody enjoyed the incident and the transaction was completed later that day. For me, it was a relief to suffer the indignity of being laughed at, rather than the termination of what I had hoped was the start of a promising legal career.

I did not just learn humility. I also became a champion of electronic banking.

But most importantly, I learned that the law is not just about processing bits of paper; it is about creating and preserving client wealth and providing solutions to problems. As a result of that mistake, I am certain that I became a far better lawyer than I would have been.

(Photograph omitted)