Byte of Prevention Blog

by Jay Reeves |

Doubt Can Be a Lawyer’s Best Friend

doubt clipartUnsure what to do in a case? Having trouble drafting a document? Can’t decide whether to settle or roll the dice at trial?

No worries. Indecision – and even mistakes, misfires and errors in judgment – can be valuable weapons in your legal arsenal.

So says Malcolm Gladwell in his essay “The Gift of Doubt,” which appeared in the June issue of The New Yorker.

If you’ve read Gladwell’s previous works (Blink, The Tipping Point, Outliers) you know he has a gift for writing about complex subjects in a cool and compelling way.

He is great at connecting the dots between what we think and do and how it affects the world around us.

Uncertainty = Valuable Asset                                                                             

In The Gift of Doubt – a New Yorker review of the biography “Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hischman” – Gladwell tackles the topic of uncertainty. Which he says is not only normal in any human endeavor but extraordinarily valuable.

“[Hirschman’s] eye was drawn to the many ways in which plans did not turn out the way they were supposed to – to unintended consequences and perverse outcomes and the puzzling fact that the shortest line between two points is often a dead end,” Gladwell writes.

He cites historical examples – from settling the West to starting a new business – where unforeseen obstacles upset master plans. Sometimes the problem was poor planning. Other times the planners were wearing rose-colored glasses – telling themselves the project would be a piece of cake when it turned out to be a can of worms.

And this, Gladwell says, can be a very good thing. Why? Because it forces us to think creatively for new solutions.

From Chaos and Catastrophe to Creativity

Here is how Hirschman puts it:

“Creativity always comes as a surprise to us…. [T]he only way in which we can bring our creative resources fully into play is by misjudging the nature of the task, by presenting it to ourselves as more routine, simple, undemanding of genuine creativity than it will turn out to be.”

In other words, success springs from failure. Or as Nietzsche said – and Hirschman believed – “That which does not destroy me, makes me stronger.”

And it is a waste of effort to try and plan for every possible bad contingency. You will not be able to do it.

 “[D]oubt was creative because it allowed for alternative ways to see the world, and seeing alternatives could steer people out of intractable circles and self-feeding despondency,” Hirschman writes. “Doubt, in fact, could motivate: freedom from ideological constraints opened up political strategies, and accepting the limits of what one could know liberated agents from their dependence on the belief that one had to know everything before acting, that conviction was a precondition for action.”

All of this should come as a comfort to practicing lawyers, who grapple with doubt and indecision daily.

So plow forward and be not discouraged. Staggering setbacks sometimes lead to awesome outcomes.

Jay Reeves a/k/a The Risk Man is an attorney licensed in North Carolina and South Carolina. Formerly he was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is usually filled with doubt and indecision. Contact jay@lawyersmutualnc.com, phone 919-619-2441.

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About the Author

Jay Reeves

jay.reeves@ymail.com | 919-619-2441

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. Over the course of his 35-year career he was a solo practitioner, corporate lawyer, legal editor, Legal Aid staff attorney and insurance risk manager. Today he helps lawyers and firms put more mojo in their practice through marketing, work-life balance and reclaiming passion for what they do. He is available for consultations, retreats and presentations.

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