Are you a good lawyer? Competent, at least? Maybe. But if you think you are, the fact that you see yourself that way may not bode very well for your client.

We were all taught growing up that confidence in our own abilities is a key to success. If you don’t believe in yourself, who will, right? It’s still happening—I attended my seven-year old’s school concert last night. The whole show was based on the principles of behavior the school tries to teach. So the kids spent weeks learning and practicing songs about, among other attributes, self-confidence.

There’s just one problem. The more highly you regard your own level of competence, the more likely you are to make a complete mess of things.

The problem is the Dunning-Kruger Effect . And it’s scary.

Confidence as a trap

The D-K Effect is a cognitive bias that describes a person’s tendency to overrate his ability or skill. One can be bumbling along doing quite a terrible job at something while being utterly unaware of it.

Justin Kruger and David Dunning asked Cornell students to rank their own abilities in logic and reasoning, grammar, and humor. After testing, the students were shown their scores.

Then the students were asked to again rank their abilities. Students who ranked in the “competent” part of the spectrum ranked themselves generally as competent. But students who scored in the 12th percentile ranked themselves as being at the 62nd percentile.

Meanwhile, students who scored well tended to underestimate their competence, relative to others.  Perhaps because they were competent, they assumed everyone else was as well.

Note the subjects tested: logic, grammar, humor. Those are three areas in which a lawyer might want to be competent. So if you think you are skilled in them, or in other subjects a lawyer should be skilled in, but you are in fact utterly unskilled . . . scary, no?

Rumsfeld, Redux

Errol Morris wrote a fascinating series for the NY Times about the D-K Effect (and related topics) in which (to my great surprise) former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s “Unknown Unknowns” comments became the subject of Dunning’s admiration, as they demonstrated some understanding of the D-K Effect.

Morris corresponded with Dunning, who wrote:

Unknown unknown solutions haunt the mediocre without their knowledge. The average detective does not realize the clues he or she neglects. The mediocre doctor is not aware of the diagnostic possibilities or treatments never considered. The run-of-the-mill lawyer fails to recognize the winning legal argument that is out there.

There is always the fear of not knowing the winning argument out there. But I think that’s a “known unknown.” You can read all the caselaw, publications, statutes and rules, and talk frequently with expert lawyers in your practice area and tamp down that fear. It seems to me the “unknown unknowns” that trip up lawyers the most are the “soft skills,” which are all about how you relate to people, and which are not measurable by any metric.

And those skills matter, a lot. I’ve seen serious criminal cases settled (or taken to trial) based at least as much on the relationship between the lawyers as on any other factor. This is the ultimate unknown unknown: what if you are a terrible lawyer for no other reason than everyone hates you?

Photo: Shutterstock

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