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?
I live in Lake WoeIsMe: All of the children are a little below average.
Or maybe I just have a bad attitude.
I’ll be frank: If I just met you, I assume that you’re inept. Not because you necessarily are inept, but because I’ve been blindsided too often in the past by the mistakes of people who I foolishly believed to be competent. That ain’t gonna happen again.
I understand that not everyone views the world through my gray-tinted glasses. I’ve met folks who are shocked by my attitude: “Mark, that outside lawyer from Honduras just told you that you’d win the case. Why are you acting as though we’re going to lose?”
“Because the lawyer is probably incompetent.”
“Why do you think that? He comes highly recommended by Smith.”
“Why do we think that Smith is competent? Or that Smith knows enough about the Honduran guy to have a right to judge him? My working presumption is that people are incompetent until they prove otherwise.”
“I’m shocked by your attitude, Mark. I’m exactly the opposite. When I meet new people, I always assume that they’re good at what they do.” . . .
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?
Meanwhile, back on Earth and/or the rest of the internet, industry observers have been feeling a bit like voyeurs at a pre-mortem autopsy. Everyone agrees that the downfall of this once-great firm is hugely sad (well, nearly everyone), but there is less of a consensus about who or what is to blame.
Last week we asked the ATL readership for their take on where fault lies. Here’s what you had to say….
* Football’s labor lockout legal fees: which Biglaw firms scored huge touchdowns thanks to their collective bargaining work? The three top billers included Latham, Dewey & LeBoeuf, and Patton Boggs. [Am Law Daily]
* The sanctions for filing a 9/11 conspiracy claim cost $15K, but forever being remembered as the lawyers who got benchslapped for drafting “a product of cynical delusion and fantasy” is priceless. [Reuters]
* Jared Loughner is still incompetent to stand trial, and he’ll remain in the loony bin for another four months. You know what that means? Time to make this kid swallow some more pills. [Arizona Republic]
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.
Not that we’re in the business of giving free legal advice, but there are a few things every lawyer should know. Lawyers should know how to handle a traffic stop, for instance. They should know how to handle cops who shout slurs at you from across the street. And of course, lawyers should never snitch.
Some of these lessons come as a shock to laypeople, and even some lawyers who didn’t pay enough attention during Criminal Procedure. But high on the list of things that trained attorneys should never do is submit to a breathalyzer test. You don’t need to be a DUI defense attorney to know that you don’t blow.
The unwritten rule isn’t there to protect drunk drivers (okay, it kind of is there to protect drunks who operate high-speed killing machines); it’s also there to protect innocent people who don’t want to get caught up in the criminal justice system.
An article in today’s Washington Post underscores the point: the breathalyzer simply cannot be trusted, and juries can’t be trusted to know that…
Ed. note: The Asia Chronicles column is authored by Kinney Recruiting. Kinney has made more placements of U.S. associates, counsels and partners in Asia than any other recruiting firm in each of the past seven years. You can reach them by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s that time of year again when JDs are starting to apply for 2L summer jobs and 2L summers are deciding which practice area to focus on.
For those JDs with an interest in potentially lateraling to or transferring to Asia in the future, please feel free to reach out to Kinney for advice on firm choices, interviewing and practice choices, relating to future marketability in Asia, or for a general discussion on your particular Asia markets of interest. This is of course a free of cost service for those who some years in the future may be our future industry contacts or perhaps even clients.
For some years now Kinney’s Asia head, Evan Jowers, has been formally advising Harvard Law students with such questions, as the Asia expert in Harvard Law’s “Ask The Experts Market Program” each summer and fall, with podcasts and scheduled phone calls. This has been an enjoyable and productive experience for all involved.
Whether you’re fresh off the bar exam or hitting your stride after hanging a shingle a few years ago, one thing’s for certain: independent attorneys who start a solo or small-law practice live with a certain amount of stress.
Non-attorneys would think the stress comes from preparing for a big trial, deposing a hostile witness, or crafting the perfect contract for a picky client.
But that’s nothing compared to the constant, nagging, real-life kind, the kind you get from the day-to-day grind of being a law-abiding attorney.
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