You don’t know what you don’t know. It’s a well-worn cliché, but the saying holds particular meaning for lawyers. The complexity, depth, and interconnectedness of the law make it nearly impossible for attorneys to stay on top of developments in the law and the business of law without help.
Take, for example, the search for legal information. Some lawyers choose to start with a basic Google search or some other low-cost inquiry. Others turn to legal research tools such as Westlaw Edge.
As in most facets of life, you get what you pay for. So even working on a topic as seemingly simple as “dischargeable debt in bankruptcy” will require knowledge of specific details and nuances that probably aren’t going to show up in Google.
Here’s another example: If you’re looking for information on “starting an LLC in the state of California,” you’ll find plenty of content on the web. You might even discover some valuable context to help drive your next actions or subsequent research. But the information you find on the web at large isn’t necessarily trustworthy.
Who is the author? How up-to-date is the content? Is it relevant to your needs? Is it even correct? You can’t always tell, and that’s a huge problem.
Even when it comes to a basic legal matter, there are obvious and not even remotely obvious adjacent legal issues that will affect your process and your work product. Knowing all those other things isn’t possible on your own, because the time required to gain all that knowledge is prohibitive.
Infinite complexity? Say hello to finite resources
The problem of the unknowable is axiomatic to every practicing attorney. The job is incredibly complex. The clients are relentlessly unforgiving. And the need for knowledge and know-how is impossible ever to satisfy completely.
Even when you’re confident you’ve found the most accurate and current legal information, there may be unseen risks lurking within the very complexity of the law. Because you take your professional and ethical obligations seriously, you conduct appropriate due diligence. But the truth is, you’ll never know it all.
What’s an attorney to do?
1. Close the knowledge gaps with knowledgeable people
Start by making the most of any institutional knowledge you can access. If circumstances allow, ask for help. The effectiveness of that help will vary depending on the number of your peers, their levels of expertise, and good old-fashioned knowledge.
For lawyers working at a solo or small firm, this is easier said than done. Consider participating in online communities, mentorships, networks, and the like. These traditional sources of information have buttressed the expertise of millions of lawyers over time. For attorneys who need more reliable access to that knowledge or a deeper pool of expertise, paid services such as Practical Law take peer knowledge and tactical know-how to the next level.
2. Add processing power to your brainpower
You can let yourself off the hook for this one. Where our limited human abilities fail, technology can pick up the slack. The task of uncovering connections and dependencies that were previously improbable, if not impossible, to find has now been reduced to a matter of clicks.
All that’s left for attorneys and law firms to do is to get better at using the technology at their disposal. It’s understandable that many lawyers don’t want to dive deep into software manuals, but there is now an expectation of technical competence within the profession and among clients. Even within your firm, underused or misunderstood tools aren’t benefitting anyone.
What’s the takeaway?
Though daunting, the problem of knowing the unknowable isn’t entirely impossible to solve. The combination of human experience and technical progress can work together to overcome the challenges of an opaque and confusing legal landscape. All you have to do is make a conscious effort to connect the people and the tools at your disposal.