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Are we afflicted by the Dunning-Kruger problem?

The ABA Journal has an interesting article by Bryan Garner, Why Lawyers Can’t Write. The causes are pervasive and complex. What I found more interesting is Bryan’s identification of a related problem: Why lawyers don’t recognize the deficiencies in their own writing. He describes studies done in 1999 by psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger. These studies revealed the following tendencies in unskillful or unknowledgeable people:

  1. They often think that they are quite skillful or knowledgeable.
  2. They can't recognize genuine skill in others.
  3. They fail to recognize the extremity of their own inadequacy.
  4. They recognize and acknowledge their own previous unskillfullness only after highly effective training in the skill.
This reminds me of an old saying by my high-school Spanish and Latin teacher, Fr. Josef Gregor: “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” It also reminds me of my own past delusions about my athletic skills. I thought I was much better at ping-pong and tennis than I actually was; consistent losing did nothing to shake my delusion.

The truth is that none of us is immune to the Dunning-Kruger problem. The best defense against it is to never cease striving to learn more and to improve our skills.


Stephen R. Diamond

Bryan is spot on: the Dunning-Kruger effect, for sure. But attorneys add another layer to the usual uninsightfulness of the unskilled in that they are uncommonly arrogant.

The comments responding to Bryan's article are particularly revealing in their defensive denial. The most common excuse is that flawed writing is "good enough." The truth is that it isn't even ethical to prepare low-quality work, based on the opinion that it will "probably" suffice, even if that's what the client wants. That's the difference between being a mercenary and being a professional.

For an extended reply to the "good enough" argument, see my "Good enough" consumerism and the myth of imperfectibily. ( )

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