New Zealand Law Society - You, human lawyer, are allowed not to know things

You, human lawyer, are allowed not to know things

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I grew up in a house with a poster titled Life’s Little Instructions hung up in the bathroom. It included instructions like, “call your mother”, “return borrowed vehicles with the gas tank full”, and “know how to make homemade brownies”. All fair enough, if rather Americo-centric.

I would sing the contents of the poster to the tune of Castle on a Cloud, from Les Misérables. If you didn’t need the lines to make sense, you could make them rhyme: “Sing in a choir, treat everyyy / one you meet like you want to be / treated watch a sunrise at least / once a year leave the toilet seat*…” and so on. It was very clever of me.

One of the instructions made no sense to me as a child: “don’t be afraid to say I don’t know”. I did not get why that needed an instruction; if you didn’t know something, you could just say it. No big deal. It also made scansion into the song difficult so I resented it for many reasons.

But then I became a teenager, and later an adult, where I was perpetually aware of what everyone thought of me. And suddenly not knowing, and admitting to not knowing, became frightening indeed.

Being a precocious, high achiever-type, it was very important that I knew all. Otherwise my cred would be shattered. You might scoff that the cred one garners in an advanced maths class is not cred worth having, but I doubt it. Most lawyers were once precocious children.

I don’t know what they teach in schools now, but when I was there mistakes, failure, and not knowing were definitely not in vogue. They were covered up or erased or ignored, definitely not confronted and dealt with. And you know what they say, that which you resist, persists. I never learned how to be okay with inadequate performance and incomplete knowledge, or the fear those states prompted. I thought that any evidence of not knowing was a mark against me. At the time, it probably was.

I know I am not alone in this because there is a whole industry of books and counselling and reform programmes targeting the imposter syndrome such a background begets. We are a profession of all or nothing perfectionists, unable to come to terms with our innate (human) limitations.

When I became a lawyer, this pattern was so reinforced it felt like the only way. My capacity to manage the discomfort of not knowing a thing someone clearly expected me to know already would prompt a full on fight/flight/freeze response in me. I would pretend to understand and then go back to my desk and frantically research to try and figure out whatever it was I didn’t know.

Time passed, and I soon had to delegate work to more junior lawyers. Despite my best efforts to delegate perfectly, work would sometimes come back to me unusable, incomplete, or wrong. I had forgotten to ask whether my intelligent and well-meaning junior knew what I was talking about when I had given the instructions. Often, it turned out, they had not, and had been paralysed by the same fear that stopped me flagging it in my early years.

When I had been in the junior’s position, when it was discovered that I did not know something I should have known, I remember feeling humiliated and scared of being uncovered as a fraud who knew nothing and definitely should not be a lawyer. But in the delegator’s position, when it turned out my junior did not know what I had assumed they knew, I did not see them as a shameful excuse for a lawyer. My concerns were more temporary and far less personal, usually only that we had wasted some time we could have avoided wasting.

Having had that experience a few times, I resolved to do better both at checking in with juniors on whether they knew what they were doing and, when I was a junior myself, on declaring easily and quickly when I did not know something. When I started doing that, the results felt counterintuitive: both supervisors and clients seemed to have more trust in me after I said I didn’t know something. Apparently knowing someone is not inclined to bluff their way through legal research or advice is a comfort.

This thing is an example of how one person’s experience of an interaction can be radically different from the other person’s in the same interaction. You feel terrified, but most lawyers delegating work do not expect you to know everything already, and even if they do, they would much rather you alerted them before you started doing work than after.

Obviously there is a time and place to disclose you do not know, but my point is that there is a time and place. And when you are in that time and place, feel free to speak up.

So that is one instruction down; now to call my mother.

Katie Cowan founded Christchurch-based litigation services provider Symphony Law Ltd. She also set up The New Lawyer fortnightly podcasts at for new and prospective lawyers with the aim of thinking in new ways about the practice and culture of law.

* This line finished “in the down position”, in case anyone is alarmed by the sudden tonal shift.

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