Start Kidding Yourself?

Is a high capacity for self-deception a net positive or net negative trait for a litigator to have?  As noted in many recent articles in the mainstream media, studies show that self-deception can be a powerful tool for persuading (or fooling) others, and persuading others is a big part of what we do.  There’s no doubt that many successful people are self-deceptive.  As William von Hippel and Robert Trivers explained in a 2011 article, self-deception can “help us accrue the more general social advantages of self-inflation or self-enhancement.”  Self-deceptive people tend to project confidence, and for litigators that can be an asset in the courtroom, in client development, and in other areas of practice.

But there’s a limit to which self-deception can help.  Clear-eyed and accurate self-assessment is key to professional development.  We litigators also need to be able to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of our cases rationally and objectively, and to understand and appreciate the other side’s position.  Otherwise we risk making unfortunate decisions and giving our clients poor advice.  An unwarranted belief in one’s ability to achieve a goal may be more of an asset in business than in litigation, where judges and juries stand ready to make counsel pay for irrational optimism.

Wherever a litigator might fall on the self-deception spectrum, it’s important to be aware of the phenomenon.  Attorneys with a high capacity for self-deception might be able to give that aspect of their personality free rein during closing argument or when pitching a potential client, but they should solicit and heed second opinions and otherwise exercise caution in evaluating and strategizing cases.  Of course, this can be difficult for people who tend to drink their own Kool-Aid.  Clear-eyed autocritics might sometimes need to work harder to be effective advocates, both for themselves and for their clients, but they should have a high capacity for learning and growth and a strong ability to assess cases accurately.  Autocritics may also have abundant “emotional intelligence” – traits such as empathy, motivation, discipline and social skills, which are generally recognized to be essential for effective leadership.

At the end of the day, we are who we are.  Success in litigation depends on leveraging one’s strengths and mitigating one’s weaknesses.  The path to success is different for everyone.

–Duncan Manville

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