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Skill Sets # 17: Know What You Must, and Then Some

Skill Sets # 17: Know What You Must, and Then Some


Posted March 25, 2021

scientia est potentia

How do our new and junior colleagues, who do not get everything they need at law school, continue to acquire knowledge, and therefore the confidence to perform the tasks we ask them to perform? The question is worthy of consideration because we have a role to play in their continuing professional education. Here are 5 accepted ways of knowing, examined in Methods of Knowing, by Paul C. Price et al that will be part of their knowledge acquisition under our care:

  • Intuition
  • Authority
  • Rationalism
  • Empiricism
  • The Scientific Method

In successive posts each of these will be examined in turn. In the end, “acquiring knowledge helps people gain more knowledge by making it easier to learn new and related information”.

This is the goal.

Methods of Knowing

By way of introduction, from my (layman’s) perspective these methods of knowing run together in the following way.

Intuition, based on emotion and ‘feelings’, is the least scientific, and while often right, is just as often wrong and therefore unreliable. And yet, for the acquirer, intuition is possibly deep down the most trusted method in the end (Intuition Bias).

Intuition may look for comfort to authoritative sources of what is thought to be known: parents, physician, teacher, religion, history, colleagues, and possibly laws. Authoritative sources however, can be wrong.

The acquirer may seek to know through logic and reason, precepts which while fundamental, are nonetheless only as good as their foundations (deductive, inductive and abductive reasoning).

Empiricism and the scientific method are the furthest from intuition.  Empiricism affords the acquirer confidence in what is thought to be known through observation and experience, the scientific method weeding out biases which might otherwise colour both.

In applying themselves to the work that they do, and depending on the circumstances, our junior colleagues rely on each of these methods of knowing. And, as I have suggested, never on one of them alone but on different combinations of them.  To give them confidence in what they think they know, we must give them the opportunity in their work to use all of them.

Knowledge Acquisition

Having been asked what the role of the U.S. military would be at the end of the Iraq war (“success” having been taken for granted), General Tommy Franks, Head of U.S. Central Command apparently replied “we don’t do windows”.

To allow our new and junior calls to grow, we should not only give them the opportunity to “do windows” we should insist upon it. Only by “learning in the flow of work” will they be able to reap the benefits of exercising all 5 methods of knowing. We want them to understand their work, the work of others, and the work of the office or firm. They should be capable of taking on not only their own work but work that a clerk or paralegal, or student might otherwise be asked to do, in support of a firm mandate where circumstances require it.

Because law offices are divided into responsibilities and the people who do them, our new and junior calls should know what the many responsibilities are, who does them, and, in a pinch, how to do them. Collating, organizing and filing briefs, as opposed to writing them, where a matter requires all hands on deck, should not be beneath or beyond them (or for that matter, beyond us).

They should also know where the administrative and regulatory offices are that certify what we do and how we do it (our courthouses and the desks within them, Land Registry offices, trade mark offices and the like), and they must go there. They must learn what “due diligence means”, in the doing of it. The concern over diminishing returns should not unduly limit the training and experiential learning of our junior calls.

Almost regardless of the size of the office, they should have some understanding of all of the practices that are carried on there and something about the clients the office serves.

Similarly, they should be familiar with office technology and how to use it.

Following this recipe will ensure that the law office, and the lawyers within it, will work more cohesively and more beneficially to all.  And our new and junior colleagues will have the foundational experiences to assist them in learning to use all of the methods of knowing in their work.  “The key is to acquire small chunks of knowledge and then apply them in different ways”.

Next: Intuition and the law.

This blog post was written by K. Scott McLean, General Counsel and Director of Practice Development.  He can be reached at (613) 369-0375 or at

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K. Scott McLean

K. Scott McLean

After 43 years of commercial and related litigation experience, I joined Mann Lawyers in 2020 as General Counsel and Director of Practice Management.  While I continue to be involved in complex commercial disputes, providing advocacy support and strategic advice, I am predominantly involved in supporting the development of our lawyers and their practices, including the recruitment and retention of associates, mentorship in enabling our associates to reach their professional goals, and the provision of structured training programs.  In these roles I enjoy the opportunity to reflect and write, under the heading Practice Management, on the importance of supporting junior lawyers. After completing an honours degree at Carleton University in 1973, I completed my law degree at Windsor Law School in 1975 and an M.A. in political studies in 1976.  I was admitted to the Ontario Bar in 1977.  Since 1977, I have appeared at all trial, judicial review and appellate... Read More

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