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Law Students and Young Lawyers

You may be Incompetent, but Potential Clients Don’t Know That

“You look like you don’t have a clue what you are doing,” said absolutely nobody the first time that they met their Dentist. Or their Surgeon. Or their Accountant.

Most people tend to assume competence when they meet a professional. Perhaps they are stupid for doing that. That thought first occurred to me as I counted backwards from ten just as the anesthetic was kicking in when I recently had surgery.

This applies to lawyers as well. Maybe potential clients and referral sources should know better than to assume competence. After all, someone has to finish last in law school and Lord knows that anyone who has practiced law for a few years has come across their fair share of idiots with law degrees. But nonetheless, competence is usually assumed. Not by everybody. For example, any in-house counsel worth their salt will learn how to measure up outside counsel. But by most people, including some fairly sophisticated businesspeople.

The following are the important corollaries for young lawyers to learn from this:

  1. Since competence is usually assumed, potential clients and referral sources choose lawyers on the basis of something else.  Things like likeability, authenticity, or sense of humour, which are all subjects which they do not cover in law school. And sincerity. As has been said by many before me, “The most important thing is sincerity. Once you can fake that you have it made.”
  2. Don’t sweat the imposter syndrome. People meeting you will not see you as an imposter until you prove it to them. You really will get the benefit of the doubt.
  3. When you market yourself, focus on listening and developing a relationship, not on trying to impress people with how much you know. If you try to impress people you have just met, you will likely just come across as insecure or stuck-up, or worse yet, reveal how little you really do know. 
  4. Whatever you do, don’t be the stereotypical know-it-all who has no idea when to stop trying to impress people. And if you are fairly new to the profession, just own the fact that you don’t know much yet and let the world assume that you know more than you do.

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