How to Feel Comfortable in Your Practice but Avoid the Dunning-Kruger Effect
It occurred to me one day in early October, while working on a problem no one in my firm had dealt with before, that I had just entered my seventh year of practice. And that suddenly seemed like a pretty significant amount of time. This started me on a pig trail thinking about how comfortable I am on a daily basis with my knowledge and experience levels. I was also curious about how comfortable others with similar experience levels were with their practices, so I ran a poll on Twitter and LawyerSmack, asking this question, “For those who have been practicing 6-9 years, how do you feel on a daily basis?”
Feeling Comfortable in Your Practice
The result was about what I expected. Most of us feel like by and large, we have a pretty good handle on things but sometimes need help.
Most of my work is pretty well contained within a couple of tort-related practice areas. For the last couple of years, the bulk of my practice has been defending personal and commercial auto cases. Within that line of work, I am usually comfortable and have a good grasp of the caselaw, how to evaluate cases, and how to work up and (if the client wants) try a case. But once every month or two, I’ll run across some obscure issue that forces me either to do some legal research or reach out to others in my office to see if they’ve dealt with this same issue before.
I work for other clients who write broader general liability insurance for businesses. When they come calling, I never know whether I’m going to be dealing with allegations of negligent failure to repair a tractor, a slip-and-fall, or a fire loss caused by a faulty heater. When I get one of these calls, the first thing I do is get excited – I love the variety. The next thing is to do a quick assessment of whether this is something I can handle on my own or need to bring on one of my partners with more experience dealing with these particular issues.
That said, the prideful part of me still bucks against asking for help. It tells me I can handle it on my own. But the client-oriented part jumps in and suggests that while I could probably figure things out and even get a fair result, I can’t likely do it as effectively or efficiently managing the case by myself as I could be bringing in a partner. I’ve found that clients are far more receptive to lawyers bringing in help rather than floundering around while they sort through issues and gain a proper footing.
Avoiding the Dunning-Kruger Effect
One of the most important parts of becoming an experienced practitioner is knowing what you don’t know and having the meekness to bring in additional resources. One lawyer responded to my Twitter poll: “I know what I don’t know in my cases and have enough experience to see how it will end badly, and only more work will hedge against terrible outcomes.” If you don’t have the self-awareness to see your own weaknesses, you’re likely suffering from the Dunning-Kruger Effect, wherein underperformers assess themselves at being much better at their work than they actually are. In their paper “Unskilled and Unaware of It,” Professors Dunning and Kruger expressed the following idea: “[T]he knowledge and intelligence that are required to be good at a task are often the same qualities needed to recognize that one is not good at that task—and if one lacks such knowledge and intelligence, one remains ignorant that one is not good at that task.”
There are ways to make sure you are not falling victim to sense of false confidence. Perform objective self-analysis by having something to compare yourself against. Be receptive to feedback and constructive criticism and implement proposed changes to improve your work. Make regular, purposeful efforts to educate yourself on your practice areas and stay abreast of new developments.
You can be assured of one thing though: in the practice of law, when you start to get too confident, some jury or bizarre issue or difficult client will come along to swipe your feet out from under you to bring you back down to earth a bit.
Photo by Peter Grifoni.