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How to Handle a Mistake as a Young Lawyer

By Meyling "Mey" Ly Ortiz

Almost everything is fixable — if you catch it early enough. The key to preventing unrecoverable errors is accepting your mistakes and disclosing them in time.

Our profession is not an easy one. From day one, perfection is impressed upon us as the bar. As young lawyers, we are taught to be careful, precise and thorough. As we continue to practice, add efficient. No one talks about what to do if you make a mistake. This is especially foolish because it is inevitable that, as young lawyers, we will make mistakes.

Disclose Your Mistake As Soon As You Realize You’ve Made It

One of the first things the first partner I worked for graciously shared with me was that most everything was fixable if we caught it early enough. It was a part of his pep talk as he sent me off to a hearing — by myself — during my first week of work. Looking back, I appreciate how he didn’t want me to be hampered by fear — too afraid to try for fear of failure — because he knew it was important for me to grow and learn.

Critical to his advice is the phrase “if we catch it early enough.” I emphasize this because it is integral to my advice to young lawyers on how to handle a mistake: 

  • Disclose your mistake as soon as you realize that you’ve made it.
  • Do not wait to see if anyone will notice.
  • Do not ignore it.
  • Do not deny it or cover it up.
  • Go directly to your supervising attorney and let them know.

You want to disclose immediately because the solution may be time-sensitive with some mistakes, such as if you blew a litigation deadline or produced privileged documents.

Another reason for disclosure is that you don’t want to compound your mistakes. If you have read the back of a bar journal where disciplinary actions are often disclosed, you will discover that lawyers don’t get disbarred for making one mistake. They lose their license when they keep doubling down on their actions by failing to address their mistakes or letting their clients know.

Unsure? Get a Second Opinion

I do have some tips around this disclosure. If you feel nervous and have a trusted mentor in the firm, you may want to consult them and get a second opinion to confirm that you have actually made a mistake.

It may also be helpful to come up with an idea on how to fix the problem, but don’t delay the disclosure just to do some research on the fixes if the issue is time-sensitive.

Was It Preventable? Reflect on Your Mistake

After you have disclosed your mistake and discussed possible solutions, you should reflect on the mistake, consider whether it was preventable, and implement countermeasures, so you don’t repeat the same mistake.

Apply What You’ve Learned

When I was a young associate, I had an opportunity to work for a partner from another city. I was excited because I had heard so much about him and was eager to make a great impression. I almost pulled an all-nighter preparing for the plaintiff’s deposition. We didn’t have a court reporter about 15 minutes before the deposition was supposed to begin. The partner turned to me and asked if a court reporter was scheduled. My “deer in the headlights” expression probably told him all he needed to know as I hurriedly exited the conference room.

I called our paralegal, who shared with me that it was the legal secretary’s role. And when I checked with our legal secretary, she told me she didn’t know it was her role (she was new) and presumed it was the paralegal’s role. I asked her to see how soon we could get someone to come; I also asked for the court reporting service’s number so I could personally follow up, which I did.

The happy ending to my mistake was that we started the deposition only 30 minutes late. My partner didn’t yell or berate me, and he didn’t hold it against me in my performance review. Instead, he used it as a teaching moment. He even joked with me at the end of the deposition, saying, “I bet you will never forget to check if a court reporter is scheduled ever again.”

He was right. But I didn’t rely on remembering that embarrassing moment alone. I created a deposition preparation checklist and made sure that “confirm court reporter” was on it.

Not all young lawyers will get to work with kind and gracious partners or make mistakes as easily fixable. By taking responsibility and responding with integrity and a growth mindset, you will not only learn but also build a brand of integrity and credibility.


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Meyling "Mey" Ly Ortiz Headshot Meyling "Mey" Ly Ortiz

Meyling “Mey” Ly Ortiz is Managing Counsel of Employment at Toyota Motor North America, Inc. Her passions include mentoring, championing diversity and inclusion, and a personal blog: TheMeybe.com. At home, you can find her doing her best to be a “fun” mom to a toddler and preschooler and chasing her best self on her Peloton (her handle is Meybe if you want her to try to chase you too). You can follow her on LinkedIn and @Meybe_JD on Twitter. (And you knew this was coming: Her opinions are hers alone.)

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