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


  1. Avatar Wade Coye says:

    Complacency is dangerous in any profession and the law is no exception. In fact, the tendency for lawyers to be considered among the most gifted members of our society plays into this. Okay, years of a lawyer’s life is devoted to learning, reading, writing, and thinking, unlike many other professions. But this does not mean lawyers are inherently more gifted than other professions. In fact, many people in a plethora of professions work harder than your average lawyer. Even if you think lawyer’s are supreme beings, complacency can still be fatal for a practice. We compete amongst ourselves. Therefore, the playing field is always even and the complacent lawyer will be quickly passed by his more motivated brethren.

  2. Avatar Joshua Baron says:

    I am fascinated by cognitive biases. I am reading Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast, and Slow” right now and it blows me away.

    I definitely know lawyers who are killing themselves working super hard who have terrible social skills that haunt them every day. I guess that’s why it’s important to have people you trust who can give you honest feedback on your strengths and weaknesses. As Kahneman repeats constantly, it is much easier to see cognitive errors in others than it is to see them in ourselves.

  3. Avatar Lynn C says:

    A colleague suffers from the mistaken perception that she is a people person, even while she screams at people about meaningless unimportant details. I wonder what people observe about me and never tell me for fear of hurting my feelings?

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