Astonishing Incompetence

I’ve never met you, but I assume that you’re incompetent.

I realize that sounds a bit harsh, but it’s time someone told you the truth.

Some people assume that strangers are competent. One of my colleagues in our Law Department said to me recently: “Outside counsel says we won’t have much liability in that case.”

I naturally asked, “Is he right?”

She was shocked: “He’s a partner at a well-respected firm. We hired him. I assume he’s competent.”

That got us to talking. My colleague gives strangers the benefit of the doubt; she assumes that people are competent until they prove otherwise. I’m exactly the opposite: When I meet you, my working assumption is that you’re inept. Over time, there’s a chance you’ll convince me that I’m wrong. (But probably not.)

Why do I assume that all new people I meet are incompetent?

No, that’s too easy. Here’s the better question: Why am I right to assume that everyone’s incompetent, and why is that a helpful way to go through life?

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If you took a poll in which you had to answer how good a lawyer you are, how would you rank yourself — below average, average, or above average? With the “illusory superiority” phenomenon at work, more than 50% of you would respond that you’re an above average lawyer. Now, you don’t have to be good at math to figure out that something’s not quite right here.

Because I care about my ATL readers, I’ve decided to make it my mission in this post to enlighten those of you below average lawyers as to your not-so-great-as-you-think-ness. The key to getting around illusory superiority is to not rely on your own fallible opinion of yourself. Instead, look to other more objective indications of your inferiority.

What are some signs that you may be a below average lawyer?

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There’s a reason why people get crotchety when they get old. People forget about things that went right in their professional lives; that’s like water off a duck. But people remember things that got screwed up; that’s what sticks in their craws.

You personally are not necessarily incompetent. But you’re tarred by the ghosts of incompetents past. When your elder — a partner, a boss, a client, whoever — asks you to do something, the boss assumes that you won’t do it. The boss doesn’t assume this because she knows that you’re irresponsible; she assumes it because the clown she asked to do something six months ago was irresponsible, and she has to hedge against you being an irresponsible clown, too.

How do you prove that you’re not irresponsible?

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Look, Touro Law students and alumni, please don’t get mad at me. I’m just the messenger.

The Washington Post is reporting that a D.C. Superior Court judge, William Jackson, declared a mistrial in a murder case on Friday so that the defendant could fire his lawyer. The attorney, Joseph Rakofsky, a 2009 graduate of Touro Law School, showed “numerous signs” that he “lacked knowledge of proper trial procedure,” according to the judge.

If you are wondering why people sometimes make fun of Touro and other very low-ranked law schools, it’s because this kind of stuff is straight-up embarrassing. Good schools try to not let people like this into to law school, and they certainly don’t let them depart so poorly trained.

But most damning of all is that Joseph Rakofsky doesn’t even seem to understand how totally embarrassing this result is for him. The kid is bragging about the result, on Facebook…

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