I recently listened to Sam Harris’s interview with Tom Nichols on Harris’s Waking Up Podcast. Nichols discussed the “Dunning-Kruger Effect.” If there is a zeitgeist for our age, it may well be the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
Before I define the Dunning-Kruger Effect, let me describe the setting where you may have experienced it. Most often you observe it at a family get-together. Likely, your loudest relative on topics in the political arena fancies himself an expert is likely not much of a political scientist. And you also may experience it in client consultations in the form of the relative who comes to the office who took a business law course at one time about a decade ago. This relative arrives at the office with the client and acts as the family spokesperson. Or you may see it in the thick handwritten correspondence from the client who has been spending time in the law library.
The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people with very little knowledge about a topic are overconfident about what they actually know. Meanwhile, folks with expertise tend to see the nuance within a topic and limit their commentary to what can be confidently known. Language may be understated and carefully precise. In the political sphere, a sizeable number of voters fall victim to the phenomenon and vote for the most vocal and confident-sounding candidate. Add to that phenomenon a bias or resentment of professionals (egg heads in their ivory tower) and a bias for “just folks” and you have the Dunending-Kruger effect.
If you are in the business of law, the Dunning Kruger effect can be tricky. We went through a painful process as 1Ls that taught us to “think like a lawyer.” And this thinking process was as important if not more important than the topics we were learning. In many ways, torts was a vehicle that we used to learn a method of thought. And this approach to legal problems was why we spent the tuition dollars.
It is fairly easy for the client in the market for an attorney to go on FindLaw and find cases that appear to be relevant. And the client can go into a prison’s law library or contraband electronic device and have access to the same database of law that you have. But the context of a legal education and years of courtroom experience do not come with the material. And it can be easy to become bogged down or incorrectly directed when you divorce the material from all the of sleepless nights learning how to understand it in context. Add to all of this, a national ethos of distrust of experts, a suspicion of the legal system and its officers, and the Dunning Kruger effect can take hold.
To make matters worse, the law is not a computer into which we feed facts and out comes an answer. Statutes and precedent are malleable. And the client’s fate is often subject to the preferences, biases, and even mood of the trier of fact and interpreter of law — the judge and/or jury. When asked such questions as “how is it looking for me?” “was the officer wrong to do what he did?” Or “when will this be over?” We give an honest answer that speaks to the uncertainty. Ask those questions to 10 honest lawyers, and about 8 of them will answer “well, it depends.” Clients are invariably frustrated by how tentative we are about things and wonder why we aren’t “shooting straight” with them. The irony is that we would not be shooting straight if we answered their questions with the level of certainty that they want. However, the jailhouse lawyer or the “family expert” has arrived at a more definite and most certainly optimistic answer. And they state it more confidently that you will. But the client comes to you looking to hire a lawyer.
Fight too hard against the Dunning-Kruger effect and the client will go elsewhere — to the lawyer who charges a third of what you charge and who is willing to agree with anything that the family’s legal expert says. This lawyer is in the client entertainment business and does not mind that the folks in the courtroom are going to roll their eyes when the lawyer comes in the door. Go along with the “expert” for too long and you will find yourself in front of a judge who will not be amused to hear what you have to say.
There is no clear answer to how to handle the phenomenon in legal practice. It requires active listening and a calm and steady effort to talk the client down from the ledge. Also, to be fair, we must be careful that we are also not falling victim to the Dunning-Kruger effect in being dismissive at competing ideas. The canary in the coal mine for whether you are suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect is a sense of confidence confidence that you know the outcome. In the long term, I have to believe that authenticity is the best long-term strategy for marketing and reputation. I have to believe this, because an alternative to that view of things is frightenting to imagine.