Pitfalls of Judging Your Own Competency
It is not easy to know yourself. According to the Dunning-Kruger effect, a cognitive bias, less competent people think they are more competent than they actually are, and competent people think they are worse than they actually are. Consider the following three scenarios, in which you perform a task at different stages of your career and then self-assess.
1: You, a young lawyer, attend court to argue your very first motion under time pressure. You hastily put materials together and deem your work as good as can be. You win the motion, bringing you immense pleasure and satisfaction. Could it have been any other way? The victory is mere confirmation: you are the #BestLawyerEver.
(But you failed to realize your factum contained an error of law; your materials had typos; your delivery was so soft the judge had to strain to hear you…)
If you’ve ever been that over-confident new lawyer promptly brought down to earth by a loss or a glaring mistake brought to light, then you know your lack of expertise can make it hard to judge whether you have done good work or not. While confidence can be beneficial and help develop trust between a client and a lawyer, all the confidence in the world cannot make up for a lack of knowledge. New lawyers can benefit greatly from a network of mentors and colleagues (such as the LSO’s Coach and Advisor Network). And all lawyers can put in place checklists, systems and processes which can help ensure work is done in a structured manner.
2: You, a not-so-young lawyer, attend your second jury trial as lead chair. Every day of trial is exhilarating, and every night is filled with doubt and despair obsessing over every potential flaw. Your trial is ultimately won. You breathe a sigh of relief and thank your lucky stars, feeling fortunate.
(But you failed to notice the jury loved you; there wasn’t a hint of doubt in your delivery; your materials were excellent…)
As you accumulate experience, your ability to see potential problems improves and you are likely not going to be over-confident. Trouble seemingly lurks around every corner, but it is not necessarily true that every potential problem must be confronted. At the same time, since you have improved, your tasks may seem easy, and so you assume others can do it better. This is imposter syndrome: the feeling that you stand alone, a clown in a crowd of professionals. If this describes you mid-career, then the Dunning-Kruger effect provides a soothing conclusion: feeling like an imposter can be normal. But if feelings of inadequacy persist to the point of handcuffing your ability to think and do, then consider contacting the Members Assistance Program.
These first two scenarios are aptly summarized by David Dunning and Justin Kruger: “The miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.”
3: You, a senior lawyer with decades of experience, complete a transaction to help your client buy out another company. Along the way you identify challenges and resolve them. Your client is happy and you believe you have done a good job.
(And you have.)
And here the wisdom of experience comes to fruition. Having achieved competence through the school of hard knocks, you may be more likely to accurately know where you stand on the competency scale. But the pitfalls of the new lawyer and mid-career lawyer are always there: legal problems often present completely new issues, and some answers may seem so obvious to you as to be trivial. Over-confidence and imposter syndrome, we see you, and we will not let you affect our level of service.