The Exceptional Lawyer

December 4, 2008

Big Frightened Egos Break Deals

Filed under: Uncategorized — joshuahornick @ 12:25 pm

Exceptional lawyers know their stuff.  Scores of lawyers have echoed this fundamental truth to me.  It’s an incomplete truth.  Since we cannot know everything, being comfortable with our areas of ignorance is also critically important, just as important as knowing our stuff.  And, unfortunately, it’s very easy for us to be uncomfortable with our areas of ignorance.

As a real estate lawyer said to me yesterday, “We [lawyers] have to be right 100% of the time.”  If a corporate executive is right 80% of the time, she receives accolades.  If we are wrong 1% of the time, the client who experienced that 1% is outraged; it’s unacceptable.  People hire us for perfection.  

Most of us who become lawyers like to have the answers.  We like to be the providers of something like perfection.  It’s a persona we enjoy.  And, when we don’t know the answers or really understand what’s going on, we’re pretty good at covering up so that others don’t see what we don’t know.  We don’t like to give the appearance of less than perfect, especially in any matter related to our area of expertise.  So, we are often slow to fess up when we don’t really get it.

This morning, an in-house counsel told me that lawyers that don’t know their stuff well enough become deal breakers because they don’t understand what constitutes a reasonable risk.  After further conversation, she amended that to say it is really the lawyers’ fear of owning up to what that don’t know that breaks the deal.  After all, if we are comfortable showing our ignorance, we can learn–even in real time, properly assess the risks and benefits, and make the deal.

While some clients may be initially put off by your not knowing the answers, my experience indicates that they are most impressed with the courage of a lawyer who admits she doesn’t understand something.  They appreciate your willingness to appear ignorant, to sacrifice your ego, for the sake of providing them with the best representation.  My own proudest moment as an associate came when I approached a partner for whom I was working to say I didn’t understand the overall structure of a type of deal we often engineered for our biggest client.  It turned out that I wasn’t alone, and he scheduled a series of seminars to bring all his associates up to speed.  It was probably the most valuable thing I did for that client.

All this is not to say that a lawyer should always immediately announce when something is not understood, although it’s not a bad idea.  If the circumstances are inappropriate (specifically, when they would put your client in a compromising or embarrassing position) be circumspect, be politic, be careful.  

I recommend for any attorney to pay attention to all the times over a three-day period that he “covers” for something he doesn’t know, then to experiment in low risk ways to see what happens when he owns up to not knowing something.  The results may surprise you.


1 Comment »

  1. The fear of “not knowing” is huge among successful professionals who have always been rewarded – since childhood – for their exceptional knowingness.

    Not knowing equates with failure. Not learning. With vulnerability. Not curiousity.
    Knowing becomes an identity – “I am the one who knows” – rather than a simple attribute of training and education.

    As you say, this hampers real conversations that promote learning. When a group of chronic “knowers” meet the capacity for collective learning plummets.

    It takes courage and skill to venture back into the world of learning.

    There is often little support for this kind of courage in the culture of most firms. And little opportunity for developing skillful ways of saying “I don’t know.”

    I love your suggestion to first simple pay attention. To notice the pattern of “covering” not knowing with terminal knowing.
    Then to try little experiments.

    The tough part is finding those “low risk” situations and relationships. Because for some – even the scent of vulnerability smells like professional death.

    Comment by Eric Klein — December 4, 2008 @ 10:27 pm | Reply

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