I’m a strong believer in knowing what you don’t know. As articling students, we are regularly being asked to do things for the first time. All the while, we are aware of the fact that that our job is more than just completing our work as competently as possible, it is also about building our own brand and reputation within the firm.
This blog is geared towards the second part of the above equation. As articling students, we have ten rather long months to build our brand within the firm and to show the powers that be what we’re like as individuals, in addition to our work product. There are many intelligent students who graduate from law school but intelligence is not the only prerequisite to becoming a good lawyer or getting hired back at a law firm. To become a good lawyer, you need the necessary soft skills to build relationships, interact with people, solve problems, manage your time effectively and exude confidence to clients. One area of importance to this second category in being aware of how we are perceived by the lawyers in firm in the context of confidence versus arrogance. All articling students are rather green in terms of our standing in the profession and that is to be expected, but you can run into problems when you begin to think you know more than you actually do. In other words, when you put your confidence ahead of your results.
In my experience, there are generally (and yes I’m oversimplifying here) two kinds of law students. Those who think they have all the answers, and those who know when they don’t have the answers and are comfortable enough to admit it. Most would fall easily into the second category. Rarely do I get an assignment where I have an answer or a solution right away or off the top of my head. Mind you, it’s a tremendous feeling of brilliance when that rare occasion does happen. When it does, I generally leave the office on a high note, much like George Costanza.
In fact, lawyers aren’t generally expected to have memorized all the minutia within their area of practice. Instead, a good lawyer is able to spot the issues first and foremost and then know what is required and where to go to find a solution. In building your brand as an articling student, you want to be known for your substance and not just your ability to sound like you know what you’re talking about. The difference can be subtle.
It is not a mystery why some students can naturally project an air of confidence, where it is probably unwarranted. Getting to where we are now is difficult. Getting into and through law school, not to mention securing a summer or articling position is quite an accomplishment. There is absolutely nothing wrong with feeling proud of making it to this point, but hubris is a dangerous thing; when confidence comes before the result, ones reputation can be shaped as being all talk and no substance.
There are many students whose gift for the gab far exceeds their ability to do the deep work required to come up with a well-considered answer. We have all known someone who can “talk-the-talk” but behind layers of confidence and bravado, it becomes evident that they cannot “walk-the-walk”. Don’t get me wrong, the ability to orate oneself around a particular issue is a desirable skill, one that generally serves lawyers and this profession well, but it’s only part of what is required. The Eddie Greenspans and Ian Scotts of the world were often the best lawyers on their feet, but behind the presentation was years of effort and hours of practice to truly be able to speak on issues intelligently and with confidence. I highly doubt that either lawyer ever went into court prepared to “wing it” or relying on bravado alone.
Now, what I am advocating for should not be seen to be in conflict with the “fake it until you make it” philosophy. An element of this is certainly required in this business, at least initially to help oneself develop the self-assurance required for this profession. At Harrison Pensa, students are regularly required to speak to matters in motions court. Not an appearance goes by where I don’t have to remind myself that I know what I’m doing and that I’m fully prepared. It is important to project some level of confidence, otherwise, you will not come across as convincing. If you’re going to say something, you might as well say it with conviction. But there is a difference between faking it until you make it and being genuinely oblivious to the fact that you might not truly understand the topic you are speaking on.
One lawyer recently told me that early on in his career, he knew that he wasn’t necessarily smarter than others in his profession, but the difference was that he was willing to “out work” them. His story made an impression on me. I know that it is not necessary to act as if you have all the answers all the time but one should be willing to put in the effort to find those answers.
The best part of knowing what you don’t know, is that as you spend more time doing legal work, your confidence will build in step with your ability, not ahead of it. You can only truly learn by doing and anyone who puts himself or herself out as knowing something without the doing, will only get by that way for so long. Ultimately, my message is simple: don’t be afraid of not being the “smartest person” in the room from day one. Try to be the person that becomes known for producing quality and trustworthy work and for putting in the effort. Unfortunately there is a place in this profession for charlatans, so do your best not to become one.