What are Lawyers Terrified Of?

What do Lawyers Fear?Many client service issues lawyers face are, at a fundamental level, a result of fear.

At this point, I’d like to invite you to lie down on a couch and talk about your parents – but that would be silly.

Instead, let’s have a look at some core client service problems that lawyers face in practice, and how there is often an underlying fear which, if dealt with, can help to alleviate those issues.

Fear of the Unknown

As a general principle, lawyers are self-appointed overachievers.  We have gotten to where we are by shear hard work, determination and sometimes intellectual mettle.  However, our achievements and focus have helped us in the area only of our technical development.

Throughout university, and our practical training, and then through to our first years as a lawyer, we are essentially called upon to do little other than flex our technical muscle, applying ourselves adroitly to various legal tasks which have a heavy technical focus (research memos, advice writing, submissions and the like).

However one day (and it comes for everyone) we are asked to sit in with a client.  By ourselves.

At that point our brains have a tendency to go a bit haywire.  What if I don’t know enough?  What do I say about fees?  Am I supposed to give them advice or not?

And so we are confronted with the fear of the unknown.  Because we have had no training, no practice at such things (other than through observation, if we are lucky) we try and behave in the manner we have seen our senior supervisors behave.  On the outside, therefore, we are confident, relaxed and in control.

On the inside, our brain is slowly melting, because we are terrified of being found out as a fake.  We don’t have all the answers.  We can’t address all the issues.  We might not even ask the right questions.

It is this fear which confronts us first – the fear of what we have not yet experienced.

The Fear of Perceived Ignorance

I wish this fear stayed with junior lawyers, but it does not.  As we enter the client conference, we are very concerned that we don’t know the answers.  The client has come to us for advice.  They give us their story, and all through it we are thinking “what am I going to say?” “how should I react” “what is the answer”  “what am I missing”.

The sad reality of this mental diversion is that we stop paying attention properly to the client, embroiled as we are with our own fear of being seen to be deficient in some area of legal practice.

Consequently we run the risk of missing important facts, nuanced emotion, relevant questions, and legal issues that could arise.

The fear of perceived ignorance is a driver of many legal failures, as lawyers around the world try desperately to convince their clients that they know everything, can do everything, can impact the world in some tangible way.  This is a falsehood which is perpetuated by pride, not fact.  No lawyer knows everything.  Even the most expert Queen’s Counsel in a particular field has things to learn, facts to apply, variations to master.  Pretending to be all-knowing is a way to lose the trust of your client.  You are neither being honest with them, nor ethical.

The Root of It

The root of these fears is this:  “the belief that mastery of technical content is sufficient to serve clients well” (taken from The Trusted Advisor).

Think about it.

You believe that your clients are there to avail themselves of your technical expertise.  As a result, you set up this huge series of assumptions about what your role is and what your client’s expectations are.  As a result, you don’t actually listen to your client, and it’s quite possible (if not likely) that the assumptions you have created for yourself are wrong.

Maybe your client doesn’t actually want your advice on issues A, B or C, but does on issue D.  Your technical focus and desire to appear intelligent and proficient will prompt you to advise on all the issues, but in doing so you are only focusing on yourself, not your client.

In focusing on our own fears and our desire to appear technically proficient, however, we are losing our ability to actually focus on what the client’s issues are.  That means we are not listening properly, nor advising properly.  The end result of those two deficiencies is that we are not developing trust.

So How do we Fix It?

The first issue is this: get rid of your pride.  You may be the foremost expert in everything, but if you’re not listening properly to your client’s needs then you are a useless lawyer.

Clients are, primarily, interested in having their problems actually understood.  They are not interested in your assumptions which waste their time.  That doesn’t mean you have to ask a million questions every interview – but it means you need to pay attention, as the right questions, and understand the issue before you engage your technical mind.

This can be unnerving, because our training and our inclination as (generally) rational lawyers can prompt us in the wrong direction here.

Next, you need to be confident enough to say that you don’t know the answer to a problem.  Don’t make something up, because you’re going to sound like an idiot.  You might indicate the direction you are thinking, but not offer the advice required.  That is sound.  Your admission will build trust, unless it is on a basic issue that you should know.  However making something up on the spot and calling later to withdraw it is far more embarrassing.

Next you need to let go of your ego.  It’s not about you, nor your proficiency.  It’s about identifying what your client needs (whether they articulate it or not) and giving them sound and useful advice on that topic.  You can’t do that if you’re focused on yourself.

Finally you must align yourself with your client.  Many lawyers seek to distinguish themselves from their client (professional versus business person).  This distinction is artificial and unhelpful when building a trust relationship.  Such a view stems from the position that advisors are there to solve problems.  The reality is that advisors are there to help clients solve problems.  A subtle, but important, distinction.

Put these elements into your day to day practice, and you will find that your clients will trust you more, that you will naturally become more client oriented, and you will gain the confidence to answer what you know, and defer what you don’t, without feeling like you are inadequate or ignorant.  It is a powerful tool to be able to confidently say “I don’t know” without sounding ashamed.

Have you had any experiences which would help us here where you have overcome this fear of perceived ignorance?  Let me know in the comments, and help us all out.

Happy Lawyering!




  • Hi Chris,

    Something a lecturer told me which I think is a useful way of avoiding the perception of ignorance is using the word “consider”. Saying something like “I’m going to consider your matter further and give you some detailed advice tomorrow” sounds better than “I don’t know so I’m going to read up on it tonight then give you some advice tomorrow”.

    I also like finding out as much info from a new client on the phone when they make their appointment. That way I can refresh my memory on the law relevant to their problem before they come in.

    Great article! 🙂


    • Great tip Tegan! People expect lawyers to ponder, consider, review, analyse. Doing those things is certainly a better idea than “I have no Earthly idea what you’re talking about so I’m going to nod and hope you don’t notice!”.

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