A lesser known, but essential lawyering skill

Liz Keogh

Owning up to ‘not knowing’ can be particularly challenging when one is new to practice.

By the time you’re undertaking a Graduate Diploma of Legal Practice (or a Masters of Legal Practice) you probably feel like you’ve squeezed an awful lot of knowledge into your head (and you’re right – you have).  But one of the things you’ll need to learn now, in order to become an effective lawyer, is the skill of identifying what you don’t know.

Sometimes in our society an ‘expert’ is thought to be a person who knows everything about a subject, but the reverse is true. A real expert is someone who knows the limits of their knowledge and isn’t afraid to be honest, and curious, about the ideas and knowledge that lie outside those limits.

Owning up to ‘not knowing’ can be particularly challenging when we are new to practice and keen to prove ourselves worthy of the trust clients will place in us, but it is actually one of the most important and impressive things we can do. 

I remember very clearly the first client I saw alone, about two months after I started practicing as a lawyer.  He’d been booked in with me because it seemed, from his conversation with the office’s support staff, that his was a pretty straightforward case – perfect for a baby lawyer’s first client.  It turned out though that there were factual complexities to his case which meant it was anything but straightforward so I had to take a deep breath and say ‘I don’t know what the answer is… but I’ll find out’.  I saw him again a few times over the next few years and he had an unnerving knack for bringing problems that were always outside my realm of knowledge, so I had to say ‘I don’t know’ a lot in my meetings with him and I began to wonder if he would question my competence.  Turned out I needn’t have worried. Years later, after I had left practice, he tracked me down through social connections to ask if I would take on his case – so seemingly my willingness to be honest about the limits of my knowledge had inspired confidence in my abilities, rather than the reverse.

Identifying what we don’t know is not as easy as it sounds though. Donald Rumsfeld captured this almost comically when he said “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

As a lawyer your clients will need you to be honest about the ‘known unknowns’, and as alert as you can be to where there might be ‘unknown unknowns’. The next time you’re starting a new subject jot down some notes at the beginning of the course about the things you don’t know about the subject.  Come back and do this again at the halfway point, and once more at the end.  Take a moment to compare these notes and notice how your awareness of the limits of your knowledge expanded as your knowledge increased.  Now take that awareness with you as you start your legal careers and remember that if you’re honest about this, your clients will want to come back to you!

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Updated:  10 August 2015/Responsible Officer:  Director, GDLP/Page Contact:  Program Coordinator, GDLP