No offense, but….

I can’t help but perk up when a sentence starts that way.

No offense, but how did a mid-level lawyer at mid-tier company get so much pub for saying something that everyone already knows?”

I’m paraphrasing. But someone recently asked me that question. I couldn’t be offended. I have often wondered the same thing. I’m best known for saying that lawyers aren’t all that proficient with the technology they already have and it would be good if they got better. That’s not exactly Nobel worthy. Yet, I received all sorts of awards and publicity. It is kind of bizarre. And I have a few different theories.

First, it is not true that everyone knows the same things to the same degree. The most ignorant are the most likely to labor under delusions of adequacy. This problem of meta-ignorance—we don’t know what we don’t know—affects the way that legal professionals evaluate themselves. They really have no idea how much effort they are wasting because of bad process and technology utilization. This obliviousness also affects their perception of their colleagues, especially the ones that know slightly more than them. I’ll return to the myth of the digital native in a subsequent post.

Second, it was not so much the saying as the doing. I might have been saying that which everyone already knew, but I was the first in-house counsel (as far as I know) to be so public in my efforts to systematically seek to do something about it. Everyone may complain about inefficient behavior in vague terms, but actually defining, measuring, and improving upon inefficient behavior is rare.

Third, everyone knowing something does not make it common knowledge. Common knowledge has a key element beyond everyone knowing something: everyone has to know that everyone else knows it. To quote Wikipedia:

Common knowledge is a special kind of knowledge for a group of agents. There is common knowledge of p in a group of agents G when all the agents in G know p, they all know that they know p, they all know that they all know that they know p, and so on ad infinitum.

As a recent, excellent piece on the special properties of common knowledge observed:

The moral is that the mere act of saying something publicly can change the world—even if everything you said was already obvious to every last one of your listeners. For it’s possible that, until your announcement, not everyone knew that everyone knew the thing, or knew everyone knew everyone knew it, etc., and that could have prevented them from acting.

I have to remind myself of this in my darker moments. Being on the speaking circuit, you see the same people, in the same places, delivering the same messages year after year. It can be easy to succumb to cynicism. It’s all kabuki theater. After all, one of the best ways to maintain the status quo is to talk about change constantly while doing nothing. Then again:

Don’t Stop Believin’. The great Dan Katz and I speak at many of the same conferences. We’re not quite at the point of Einstein’s chauffer (who, in the apocryphal story has heard Einstein’s speech so many times that Einstein lets him give it), but I have heard his insights often enough that I am in danger of starting to think they are my own. Commenting on the repetitive nature of these speaking engagements, Dan likes to compare the experience to being in the epic band Journey, which is always expected to play its greatest hits. Get up there and sing the song everyone came to hear! But, like Dan, I realize that repetition is one of the four levers of persuasive certainty and can give the illusion of truth even when an argument is weak, which his is not.

Further, ours is the speaker’s perspective. The speakers and their messages have limited turnover. But the audience usually consists of first timers. For example, while it may be something they’ve spoken on for years, I left ILTACON finally ready to tackle Agile because of chat with John Grant, as well as thinking deep thoughts about what the Baby Boomers have done to the practice of law because of talk by Joshua Lenon. It would have been a shame for me if either of them had declined to spread their message just because they had shared it before.

Collective conversations like ILTACON and 3 Geeks have many positive effects. The focus is education—creating awareness of new information. But the pursuit of real education—the audience internalizing the message—often compels us to repeat and reinforce information that is already out there. And translating real education into action often turns on that information becoming common knowledge. This first one can make us feel noble. The second can make us feel redundant. The last one can make us feel silly. Re-stating the obvious does not seem like it has much merit. Again:

The moral is that the mere act of saying something publicly can change the world—even if everything you said was already obvious to every last one of your listeners. For it’s possible that, until your announcement, not everyone knew that everyone knew the thing, or knew everyone knew everyone knew it, etc., and that could have prevented them from acting.

In a similar vein, the amazing Seth Godin has some valuable advice for those of us (essentially, all of us) who let embarrassment result in self-censorship:


It’s a tool or a curse, and it comes down to the sentence, “I’d be embarrassed to do that.”

If you’re using it to mean, “I would feel the emotion of embarrassment,” you’re recognizing one of the most powerful forces of our culture, a basic human emotion, the fear of which allows groups to control outliers, and those in power to shame those that aren’t.

The stress that comes from merely anticipating the feeling of embarrassment is enough to cause many people to hold back, to sit quietly, to go along.

And this anticipation rarely leads to much of anything positive.

On the other hand, if you’re saying, “doing that will cause other people to be embarrassed for me, it will change the way they treat me in the future,” then indeed, your cultural awareness is paying off. There’s a reason we don’t wear a clown suit to a funeral–and it’s not precisely because of how it would make us feel to do that. It’s because insensitive, unaware, selfish acts change our ability to work with people in the future.

Most of the time, then, “I would be embarrassed to do that,” doesn’t mean you would actually be embarrassed, it means you would feel embarrassed.

In most settings, the embarrassment people fear isn’t in the actions of others. It’s in our internal narrative. Culture has amplified the lizard brain, and used it to, in too many cases, create a lifetime of negative thinking and self-censorship.

So, yes, by all means, don’t make us feel humiliated for you, don’t push us to avert our eyes. But when you feel the unmistakable feeling of possible embarrassment, get straight about what your amygdala is telling you.

-Seth Godin

Casey Flaherty is the founder of Procertas. He is a lawyer, consultant, writer, and speaker focused on achieving the right legal outcomes with the right people doing the right work the right way at the right price. Casey created the Service Delivery Review (f.k.a., the Legal Tech Audit), a strategic-sourcing tool that drives deeper supplier relationships by facilitating structured dialogue between law firms and clients. There is more than enough slack in the legal market for clients to get higher quality work at lower cost while law firms increase profits via improved realizations.
The premise of the Service Delivery Review is that with people and pricing in place, rigorous collaboration on process offers the real levers to drive continuous improvement. Proper collaboration means involving nontraditional stakeholders. A prime example is addressing the need for more training on existing technology. One obstacle is that traditional technology training methods are terribleCompetence-based assessments paired with synchronous, active learning offer a better path forward. Following these principles, Casey created the Legal Technology Assessment platform to reduce total training time, enhance training effectiveness, and deliver benchmarked results.
Connect with Casey on LinkedIn or follow him Twitter (@DCaseyF).

Photo of Casey Flaherty Casey Flaherty

Casey has many opinions. And even more words. He is a former Biglaw associate and corporate counsel who moved into legal operations consulting for law departments and law firms. He nerds out on systems thinking, strategic sourcing, process re-engineering, KPIs, and the practical application of technology to the legal dimensions of business problems. His sweet spot is the mesh point between law departments and law firms where he promotes structured dialogue to foster deep supplier relationships (you can read about that here and here). Casey’s utilizes supply-chain management techniques like site visits to weave continuous improvement into the fabric of the law department/firm relationship. It was sites visits that prompted his ‘revelation’ that legal professionals generally make poor use of the core technology tools of their trade (Word, PDF, Excel). This low-hanging fruit for improving productivity and satisfaction engendered Casey’s passion project, the Legal Tech Assessment, a competence-based learning platform used by law schools, law firms, law departments, government, non-profits, and state bars (i.e., for CLE). You can demo his LTA here.