Humble Pie: Improve Legal Professionalism with Humility

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Have you ever been accused of being arrogant? Boy, I have. And rightly so. I’ve done more of my fair share of pole-vaulting over the fine line between self-confidence and arrogance. Why? Because I didn’t have a good working definition of “humility.”

Yes, I can be arrogant, and some will accuse me of being arrogant simply because I’m writing on the subject of humility. Who am I to tell you how to be humble?! Hmmmf! Maybe I’m making a mistake sharing on this subject, but I’ll take that risk.


I’m not going to tell you how to be humble, because I’m not an adept and we all learned in our first week of Real Property that you cannot transfer something you don’t possess. Honestly, I don’t know. Welcome to the paradox of humility.

What I can share are two definitions of humility that I’m willing to work toward. These ideals, while difficult to attain (and I certainly have not attained them) are simple to remember. But before sharing the ideals, let’s get a firm understanding of why it’s important to strive toward a working understanding and daily practice of humility.

  1. It makes life easier. We don’t have to live under our self-imposed sentence of always being the best, smartest, hardest-working. That self-reliant attitude causes all sorts of damage to ourselves and the people in our lives.
  2. It’ll help the profession. The prevalence of arrogant lawyers has hurt the reputation of the profession, which harms all of us. So, doing our part to lessen that perception is an ethic worth our collective aspiration.

With those two thoughts in mind, let’s look at two working definitions of humility.

In Relationships

“In relationships, humility makes no comparisons.”

Making no comparisons between ourselves and others we meet frees us from the constant trap of feeling “less than” or “not good enough” than some people and the trap of feeling guilty for possessing the wonderful skills and talents that each of us possess. We have all experienced the fear of not being good enough and its twin that others will think we’re arrogant when we are good enough—especially when we’re sincerely and naturally great at something.

Try not to compare yourself to others all the time and you’ll experience a freedom from fear that you’ve never known before.

In Experiences

“In experiences, humility accepts the situation as it is.”

We’re in the business of fixing problems. So, accepting life on life’s term is not something we practice very often. It’s our JOB to change things for the better, or at least in the best interest of our client. That’s OK in our professional life most of the time because it has to be. But it’s not always the best move to change something. Sometimes it’s in the best interest of our client to accept how things are instead of acting to make things worse. Sometimes it’s in the best interest of our self-esteem to just be humble.

Sincere humility is really one of the strongest powers on the planet. I don’t possess this characteristic as often as I would like. Maybe it can never be truly possessed. But, I’m willing to move toward an ideal. I hope you’ll join me on that path, for yourself, and for the good of the profession.

What is your definition of humility and how do you work toward your ideal?

(photo credit:http://www.flickr.com/photos/alyssssyla/3063253907/)

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  • Very well written article. It is so important to be humble in your personal life as well as professional life. Something that many people need to work on, including myself.

  • Great post Kevin, hopefully young lawyers will stick with humble pie, https://lawyerist.com/how-young-attorneys-can-increase-civility/

  • In my short time practicing, I witnessed arrogance and unwarranted self-confidence hurt clients time and again. Too many lawyers draw the false conclusion that zealous representation requires unabashed arrogance.

    No doubt that the profession as a whole would be well-served by a large slice of humble pie.

  • And, I even missed a couple typos to remind myself that humility is sometimes served unexpectedly. :-)

    Thanks for the kind feedback, and we’ll get those errors corrected!

    What tips do you have for helping others find the right balance between humility and confidence?

    • Kevin,

      I think the first step is that the person be mindful of his/her attitude. You need to be looking out for those moments (few or many) when you pass the line out of humility and into arrogance. Also, as crazy as it sounds, you have to want to be humble. A conscious effort needs to be made.

      On a side note, I’ve noticed that it seems like humility is viewed in this profession as a weakness by some.

      • @Ben re: humility as weakness. Exactly right. Also, it seems to me that many think being an arrogant prick is advantageous.

        Adopting the arrogant style seems to be the easiest style to adopt. Unfortunately, it is only through experience that many learn of the effectiveness of “other” styles, including those that involve humility, courtesy, and other forms of professionalism.

  • Typos corrected. Thanks Sam!

  • Tim Baran

    Love this post, Kevin. I see this in the entrepreneurial world all the time – the way people follow, lock, stock and barrel, the many self-proclaimed gurus. Everyone becomes all-knowing and less than humble. I think a key component is to always question – our leaders, our followers, ourselves – and never be so sure of everything that we’re not okay with being questioned. Ben makes a good point about this being seen as a weakness but in the long run, it’s a strength.

  • Kevin, this is funny as the last trait I would ever assign to you is arrogance. I’ve never met you in person, but you don’t come across that way at all. Humility is a very interesting characteristic, and often misunderstood because it causes many to think that means not “selling” oneself.

    You and I operate within the legal profession, which often finds business development challenging because it is somehow scary, and often beneath the dignity of the profession. This is at odds with the notion of being humble because those who are humble find promoting oneself (at the right time) outrageous.

    Being humble is nothing close to being weak. Picture those who are strong, have admirable skills, stay above the fray when others are digging, insulting, putting others down or any of a number of other unattractive characteristics, and what do you picture? I picture someone with humility, professionalism, enough confidence in him- or herself to not have to exhibit arrogance, and whose skills show themselves much more prominently because of that ability to humbly stay away from all of that.

    Weak? No way! Strong, confident, able to invest oneself in the interests of one’s clients in order to humbly match his services to their needs? Now that’s humble, and that’s professional, and I admire that greatly!