What You Don’t Know Will Hurt You

If you aren’t at least occasionally struck by how much you don’t know about lawyering, you are probably an ignoramus.* If you are scoffing at that sentence, read on, because you are definitely an ignoramus, and the worst kind: a willful one.

There are some new lawyers who don’t realize this. They seem to think their ambition and intelligence is all they need to succeed right away. Some even think they are qualified to tell other new lawyers what to do! I thought so, when I was a recently-licensed lawyer. I was wrong.

One of the things you are ignorant of is all the mistakes you are making, the dumb advice you are giving, the strategic errors you are committing, and so on. Think you aren’t? Don’t worry, soon enough a judge, or opposing counsel, or—if you are lucky—your boss will point out your mistakes. Some will be merely embarrassing. I have had plenty of these. For example, Minnesota has two rules on motion timelines, and I used the wrong one the first time I had to schedule a motion for summary judgment. Opposing counsel called to let me know, which was embarrassing, and cost me plenty of credibility with him. It was also, fortunately, easy to fix.

Other mistakes will be expensive, and could cost you your job—or your license. For example, Randall just let me know the story of an opposing counsel who served a Rule 68 offer he (apparently) wasn’t authorized to make. Randall accepted, and things started getting messy as opposing counsel tried to fix his mistake (he couldn’t).

The practice of law (and the business side of running a law practice, for that matter) involves a lot of mistakes, missteps, and corrections. “Practicing” law just means learning to make fewer mistakes, and learning to recover from them more gracefully. Eventually, you will make enough mistakes that you will learn how to avoid most. About that time, you will look at the first sentence of this post and chuckle to yourself in agreement.

*One of the things I don’t know is whether this holds true for lawyers with more experience than I have (right around 7 years). I bet it does hold true, though. The most impressive lawyers I know seem to have embraced their ignorance. They assume little or nothing about anything, but approach every legal question as if it were a new one, whether it is the time to respond to a motion or a complicated securities issue.

Especially if you are a new lawyer, the things you don’t know make the things you do know look like a shrimp next to a whale. Once you realize that, you’ll be a much better lawyer. Don’t be an ignoramus.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/saverello/3558749451/)

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  • If anyone imagines that this kind of care and precision applies only to lawyers, remember the Carpenter’s Rule: “Measure twice; cut once.”

    Thank you, Sam.

  • Susan’s comment reminded me of my dad’s old construction boss, who would sometimes mutter, “Durn. I cut it twice and it’s still too short.” I guess that’s like the attorney who made the Rule 68 offer he couldn’t fix.

    I must have a really sheltered experience. So far, I doubt myself, check everything multiple times from all angles I can think of, and so do most of the lawyers I know. I know attorneys have a reputation for brash arrogance, but I don’t know if I’ve ever actually met one who embodied the stereotype.

  • This is so true! Best to embrace humility and remember that your practice will always be “in process.” As a brand new solo taking on new areas of practice after nearly a decade as a corporate lawyer, I am acutely aware of how little I know. Sometimes it keeps me awake at night, but then, sometimes it provides just the fuel I need to keep on learning.