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How Dunning-Kruger Can Make You a Better Lawyer

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Don't know what Dunning-Kruger is? We'll fill you in.

Have you ever accepted a case thinking it would be a piece of cake, only to find yourself still mired in it years later?

Or maybe you’ve taken a matter outside of your practice area thinking it will be easy enough to get up to speed, only to find yourself in over your head and – the ultimate nightmare – having to call your professional liability carrier.

If you’ve ever been in either of these situations, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or a bad lawyer. It could simply mean you fell prey to the Dunning-Kruger effect.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a type of cognitive bias in which people believe they are smarter and more capable than they actually are. This can manifest in different ways, from spouting opinions on subjects you know little about to tackling assignments beyond your abilities.

For lawyers who don’t acknowledge their own limitations of time, resources and expertise, the Dunning-Kruger effect can spell trouble.

“Our brains hide our blind spots from us,” writes science reporter Brian Resnick in Vox. “The Dunning-Kruger effect is one example of how. We often feel more confident about a skill or topic than we really should. But at the same time, we’re often unaware of our overconfidence.”

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The Dunning-Kruger effect is named after the two social scientists who first described the phenomenon. Here is the 1999 research paper announcing their findings.

The phenomenon is not something that happens to a few unlucky souls. It happens to everyone.

This is a phenomenon that visits all of us sooner or later,” says Michigan professor David Dunning, in this interview with Resnick. “Some of us are a little more flamboyant about it. Not knowing the scope of your own ignorance is part of the human condition. The problem is we see it in other people, and we don’t see it in ourselves. The first rule of the Dunning-Kruger club is you don’t know you’re a member of the Dunning-Kruger club.”

So how can knowing about the Dunning-Kruger effect make you a better lawyer? Here are 6 ways:

  1. You won’t automatically believe that everything your client is saying is true. “We can take some idea and spin a complete and compelling story around it that is coherent, is plausible, makes a lot of sense, is interesting,” says Dunning in the Resnick piece. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s right.”
  2. You’ll be less inclined to jump to conclusions about the merits of a case. “Whenever we reach a conclusion, it just seems like it’s the right one. In fact, a lot of what we see and conclude about the world is authored by our brains. Once you keep that in mind, hopefully, it does give you pause, to think about how you might be wrong, or to think about how another person might have a case. And you might want to hear them out.”
  3. You’ll analyze cases in terms of probabilities of success. “People who think not in terms of certainties but in terms of probabilities tend to do much better in forecasting and anticipating what is going to happen in the world.”
  4. You’ll think before you speak. “Be a little bit more careful about what pops out of your head or what pops out of your mouth. You don’t have to do it all the time, but if the situation is important, or the situation is fractious, [take a] time out.”
  5. You’ll be unafraid to say you don’t know. “People seem to be uncomfortable about saying, ‘I don’t know.’ That’s one thing we’ve never been able to get people to do.”
  6. You’ll ask for help when you need it. “A lot of the issues or problems we get into, we get into because we’re doing it all by ourselves. We’re making decisions as our own island, if you will. If we consult, chat, schmooze with other people, often we learn things or get different perspectives that can be quite helpful. An active social life, active social bonds, in many different ways tend to be healthy for people. Social bonds can also be informationally healthy as well. Don’t try to do it yourself. Doing it yourself is when you get into trouble.”

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