Why Future Lawyer Needs to Learn to Say I Don’t Know

Have you ever heard the quote

“We must free ourselves of the hope that the sea will ever rest. We must learn to sail in high winds.”?

This statement, allegedly from Aristotle Onassis, describes really well the current challenge we lawyers face. A stormy sea – that’s what our environment is like right now and the lawyer’s job in that environment is sailing in a storm or at best in a strong wind. The world around you is unstable and constantly changing and it is placing entirely new demands on your work as a lawyer. In these ravages, traditional expertise based solely on acquired knowledge is no longer enough. What you have been taught and what you have also been socialized for is not enough. These stormy times are again a good reminder of how important it is to be able to act in uncertainty and to be able to constantly evolve and create something new. A good knowledge base alone is not enough. And it is useless to wait for the wind to calm down.

Why expert is no longer an expert

My generation, and especially the generations before me, grew into and got used to the fact that the hallmarks of expertise are high education and long experience. The path to success was really clear and high education almost guaranteed a good career and an expert status. If you were a lawyer, you were listened to because of your lawyerness. This can still be true to some extent, but the picture of expertise is changing. The pillars of industrial society, such as institutions and professions, or at least their absolute position as an authority, are giving way.

The competition in the market is fierce and in order to make your voice heard and someone to listen to you, you need to know and be much more than your education and title. In addition to in-depth and multi-level knowledge related to your field, you will be required to have social skills such as interaction skills and the ability to market your own skills. Plus, demands are placed on your personality – you have to be a good character! You also need to be able to tell what you know, that is, in addition to having that knowledge. This skill of expressing what you know and can do can be a great challenge at least for myself. I wish it was enough that you knew how to do your job well, but that’s not the case anymore. You must also be able to tell about it in a way that the listener understands and can relate to.

So what to do? Dissecting the concept of expertise can help better justify and understand the importance of change. Expertise has been structured in many different ways in research, and here I explain three of them: cognitive and social expertise as well as expertise as creating new knowledge.

The one who knows

Text Traditional expertise based solely on acquired knowledge is not enough - Legal Design Blog Something Simple FirstTraditionally expertise has been based on knowledge and cognitive processing of information. In this case the concept of expertise refers to well-organized internal knowledge structures and processes. This kind of expertise develops in a fairly straightforward way with your work experience: the work becomes easier and routine gradually and requires less intellectual effort. As you gain more experience, the problems begin to become familiar and so do their solutions. Sounds like a comfortable and safe space to stay in, right? But as the world around us quickly becomes different, maintaining the status quo is sadly not enough to secure our own future.

Indeed, from this cognitive perspective, expertise has become a mode of action rather than a permanent quality acquired through education and work experience. The way you can increase your cognitive expertise is by way of reflecting, that is, by constantly reflecting on your own actions consciously and by constantly striving to learn something new.

Do you dare to say you don’t know

Reflection is a word related to expertise that experts like to use a lot and talk about but do not like to practice themselves in reality. Maybe you can identify with this? Reflection refers to how you feel about your own limitations, that is, to the fact that you do not know all things or know everything. Would you or could you as an expert dare say I don’t know but I’ll find out?

This is an important part of expertise, the fact that you can constantly and consciously look at your own thinking and actions and also face your own limits. Namely, facing your own boundaries, questioning yourself and accepting your own uncertainty make it possible for you to expand your skills and actions. Then you will not only be content with the existing but will take on problems and challenges and dare to ask new questions as well. So you don’t just answer existing questions, you break down questions into new ones. This is the inspiring point where the best innovations and also legal design start! Finding questions that no one else is yet asking.

Reflection can be approached in many ways, you can consider uncertainty and limitations as a threat to your own skills or it can also be perceived as liberating. Yes, reflection can set you free. You’re actually a better expert when you dare to admit you don’t know everything. It frees you up to find new creative solutions. In fact, I dare say that you can stand out as an expert from wannabe experts because you know how to reflect, that is, you can use uncertainty as a source of new learning! At the same time, wannabe experts want to cover up their uncertainties and claim knowing everything and completely overlooking their shortcomings.

The one who works together

One interesting aspect of a lawyer’s expertise is its social dimension. Expertise as an individual feature is a myth that has begun to be dispelled in recent decades. Even as experts, we are not just individuals, and we can no longer achieve the status of an expert in the future working life by summoning wisdom from above. Expertise is based on interaction and negotiation, so it is a socially and culturally produced process. In plain language, this means that the criteria for expertise are constantly changing and you have to negotiate your position as the value of your skills changes or your relationship with your employer, work community or clients changes

Thus, expertise can also be shared expertise. This means that it is no longer built on the qualities of just one person, but on a combination of the skills and activities of several people. You’ve probably noticed that at work, knowledge is scattered across different experts, and even if you’re an hc expert in one area, you might be a complete novice in another area. And this distinction does not look age: for example, a newly graduated lawyer can be a really profound expert in reaching clients and speaking to them in just the right way on social media and making killer sales, while a senior colleague who can be an in-depth expert in his or her field opposes using social media to the last and ends up not finding or reaching enough clients.

This can be a challenging situation and experience for a lawyer accustomed to the know-it-all position of an expert. To understand that I am not able to achieve the end result alone, but my task is to supplement the skills of others. But herein lies the value of shared expertise, more people sharing something with themselves and the end result is something that no one alone would achieve. Together we can go so far.

Don’t get me wrong, the social perspective isn’t meant to deny the importance of individual qualities and skills. It complements the individual perspective of expertise. However, shared expertise requires active interaction and the genuine contribution of all parties involved in the cooperation. It also means sharing of information openly and generously, which can be a bit hard for lawyers.

Text If you dream of having a greater impact build networks - Legal Design Blog Something Simple FIrstOne example of social expertise is network expertise, that is, expertise that is built across the boundaries of occupations and labor divisions. A more negative term for network expertise is shattering expertise. I come across this negativity in discussions related to the future work of lawyers, such as when it comes to outsourcing the expertise of lawyers or that the professional ethics of lawyers threaten to disappear into subcontracting chains. A lot of legal know-how, and routine work in particular, is already being outsourced and subcontracted, for example, from cheaper countries, which understandably seems threatening.

However, network expertise can be above all an opportunity, because at its core it means sharing information and enabling more and more people to participate in decision-making. Indeed, networking allows even small actors to participate and influence the future of law and the profession of lawyers. So if you dream of greater impact yourself, by building networks that complement your own skills and what you do, you will achieve much more and bigger. And you will feel elevated in the process.

The one who creates

The work of lawyers has traditionally been associated with the quick and accurate solution of familiar problems, i.e., routine expertise. Lawyers apply relatively permanent legal regulations quickly and accurately to cases at hand. The keys in this kind of work are rules, formulas, processes, and predictability. The bad news for the future of such work, however, is that following the rules and speed and accuracy are exactly what machines can be taught to do, what they are already doing now, and what they are going to do much better than humans. In these jobs, we cannot compete with machines.

However, what machines do not know and do not learn very easily is a different kind of expertise, the ability to create new knowledge and skills in new situations, i.e. adaptive expertise. This adaptive perspective is the third approach on expertise in addition to the cognitive and social perspective.

Text Admitting you don't know everything frees you up to find new creative solutions - Legal Design Blog Something Simple FirstYour usual way to deal with problems may be to minimize them. If you are a kind of a person that wants to stick to routines and keep working as before, you try to minimize problems to get back to normal. Someone else, in a similar situation, invests more cognitive capacity in the situation, i.e. goes out to question and challenge themselves and tries to solve the problem even if it requires working at the extremes. Such expertise is creating new knowledge, directing actions and resources to advanced problem-solving. As an expert, you can constantly develop your own ability to solve ever more difficult challenges and put all your free capacity into development. You need this constant effort to develop yourself in a rapidly changing, even chaotic work life. As good as continuous success or excellent performance in the routine projects may feel, they will not develop your expertise.

So what does all this mean in practice and for you? The skills acquired once in school and in your work are a good start and you can be proud of your achievements gained through hard efforts. But you can’t settle for them and stand still. At the latest when work begins to feel like a routine, it’s time to take care of your own development and learn something new. Text Your success is measured by how you can tolerate not knowing and uncertainty - Legal Design Blog Something Simple FirstHow can you develop your work as a lawyer, how to make the work more relevant and meaningful, how to be inspired by law every day, how to serve customers better and more human-centered. To you who have just graduated or are in the process of becoming a lawyer, thinking about all this and acquiring new skills in addition to the knowledge base taught at university must start already during your studies. Don’t be lulled to the readily made path.

Dare to be a novice, even a bad one and test your limits. Your success will be measured by how you can tolerate not knowing and uncertainty and find ways to overcome it. It is hard but you can do hard things.

Sources: Bereiter, C. & Scardamalia, M. Surpassing ourselves 1993., Filander, K. Kehittäjät tulevaisuuden verkostoasiantuntijoina 1997., Haapakorpi, A. Matkalla asiantuntijaksi 2007., Hatano, G. & Inagaki, K. Two courses on expertise 1986.Katajavuori, N. Vangittu tieto vapaaksi 2005.

Image of Hannele Korhonen Legal Designer

Who’s writing?

Hi, I’m Hannele. I am an ex-corporate lawyer, legal designer, pioneer in legal tech, serial entrepreneur and blogger.  I am the founder and teacher in Lawyer’s Design School.

I’m here to teach you new skills and mindset of legal design to thrive in the future of law.

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