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Skill Sets # 8: Judgment

Skill Sets # 8: Judgment


Posted April 28, 2020

“I read the news today, oh boy”   A Day in the Life, Lennon and McCartney

The human brain contains at least 90 billion neurons, each an information processing device interacting with approximately 1,000 other neurons. It weighs about 1.36 kg., takes the shape of a cauliflower and has a texture like tofu. If you set out to count one of the connections in the average human brain each second, it would take you more than 3 million years to finish (30 – Second Brain, Editor Anil Seth)

Since the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, how many trillions of words have been written or spoken about it?  No matter the number of neurotransmitters conveying signals between neurons, how much can be absorbed, let alone given meaning by our brains, before we literally overload?

My guess is, not much.

In their busy work lives our junior colleagues are repeatedly called upon to determine what facts matter and what do not, and often who matters and who does not.  In everything they do for us they are required to discriminate; to read, review and assimilate; to advise and to opine, and all the while to perform.  And let’s be fair, they must balance all of this with the fluid demands which define the environment they are working in, which include accounting for everyone and everything around them (including of course current circumstances), and in priority, to us.

In our equally busy work lives, we seniors take much of this for granted. In instructing our associates, we are addressing our own pressures, concerns and requirements.  Linked with the practical knowledge and skills we hope to provide to them is our expectation of judgment and maturity from them, in fulfilling the demands we make of them.


“You don’t see the world as it is. You see it as you are” – Talmud

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/But in ourselves” – Julius Caesar

Neuroscientists have identified the cerebral cortex as the “higher order” of the brain that governs thinking, planning, judgment, and decision-making among other functions.

So we know where judgment and maturity reside.  How do we help our associates exercise it?

Exercising sound judgment involves the ability to make considered decisions and come to sensible conclusions, and is made up of three things: experience, intuition, and confidence that the decision being made is the right one.  (Merriam – Webster)

When our students and newer colleagues come to us, they have advanced education, training and life skills already.  While they are not yet perfectly formed, they know a thing or three, and have developed many of the skills we require.  However, they are new to us and we are new to them.  Our needs are clear, we know what we want and what it looks like.  We know precisely what we are looking for in maturity and judgment in a law office, they do not.

Here are ways we can assist our associates in developing and applying sound judgment to their day to day work lives.

  • We can start by exposing them to mindfulness training, as a prerequisite to self-awareness. The proposition that judgment requires self-awareness is not debatable, it is as old as science and philosophy. Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter, authors of The Mind of the Leader have commented that in a busy, distracted work life, the two central characteristics of mindfulness, focus and awareness, are key qualities for effective mental performance and self-management.  They define Focus as “the ability to be single mindedly directed in what you do – what allows you to finish a project, meet goals, and maintain a strategy”.  And they define Awareness as “the ability to notice what is happening around you as well as inside your own mind. Self-awareness allows you to know what you’re thinking”.
  • Both focus and awareness are the antithesis of multitasking, the exercise of which lessens the ability to apply sound and sustainable judgment to the resolution of a task. We should dissuade our associates from believing in the multi-task myth.
  • Recognizing the importance of experience, we can do everything we can to ensure that we provide our associates opportunities to look at the big picture, and not just discrete parts of an assignment, by involving them in both the pieces of the puzzle and the means of solving it. This is important enough that we should be prepared to underwrite these experiences if the file cannot support them.
  • We can ensure that we both review and comment constructively on the tasks our developing colleagues perform for us.
  • We can be sure to expose our associates to both the “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat”, by taking them with us when we leave the office and including them in meetings with our clients in the office. This includes, when they are ready, sending them out on their own.
  • We can learn to share credit when and where it is due with our associates. This builds confidence, and while you may not think so, impresses clients.
  • We can ensure that our doors are open. We can demonstrate to our junior colleagues how we exercise both judgment and maturity in the work we do. We can include them in the making of decisions in support, in how we assess and make choices, and in what we take account of and why.
  • We can stress the importance not only of organization and preparation, but of the need to have a solid grasp on what is relevant to a matter, including context. Understanding context including the instructions and objectives of the client, and the make-up and character of other parties and counsel on the file, is the key to exercising sound and lasting judgment.
  • And finally, we can explain the important connection between judgment and strategic considerations, the fun part of lawyering.

Oh boy.

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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