Your Lawyer Is Wrong

If you’re a lawyer, predicting the outcome of a case is an important part of your job. It helps you advise your client, decide what strategy to employ, know when to settle, etc. That expertise is part of why lawyers can charge more per hour than the rest of us make in a day. 

But—guess what?—lawyers aren’t so good at evaluating those odds, according to a new paper published in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. That’s because they’re biased in favor of their own chances; they think they’re going to win, and often they’re wrong. The study surveyed nearly 500 lawyers and had them predict the outcome of an active case and then compared those predictions with what actually happened. From the paper:

Lawyers frequently made substantial judgmental errors, showing a proclivity to overoptimism. The most biased estimates were expressed with very high initial confidence: In these instances, lawyers were extremely overconfident.

But, surely, more experienced lawyers have a better sense of who’s going to win, right? Nope. In fact, “the data provided no support for the hypothesis that lawyers with more practical experience are better calibrated than lawyers with less experience.” So much for the Matlock Effect.

Okay, but certainly it would help if, when making predictions, lawyers were asked to give reasons why they might not win before being asked to rate how confident they were. The researchers thought this “debiasing technique” would encourage lawyers to give more realistic assessments.

It didn’t. They were still overconfident.

So what’s wrong with a little wishful thinking? Well, as the authors point out, imagining a positive outcome significantly increases one’s disappointment when things don’t work out. But it’s more pernicious than that. Here’s what an earlier paper on the topic of confidence has to say:

It can be argued that people’s willingness to engage in military, legal, and other costly battles would be reduced if they had a more realistic assessment of their chances of success. We doubt that the benefits of overconfidence outweigh its costs.

Worth noting is that women tended to be less susceptible to the overconfidence bias than men and better at determining whether they had a moderate or a high probability of success. Something to consider next time you want to sue.

(A PDF of the paper, “Insightful or Wishful: Lawyers’ Ability to Predict Case Outcomes,” can be downloaded here. The authors are Jane Goodman-Delahunty, Pär Anders Granhag, Maria Hartwig, and Elizabeth F. Loftus. The paper quoted at the end is “The weighing of evidence and the determinants of confidence” by Griffin, D., Tversky, A. (1992).  Don’t mess with Andy Griffith.)

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