Intellectual Humility: Could I Be Wrong?

“HA – I told you!” My friend shrieked smugly. I rolled my eyes, trying to conceal my annoyance. We had been bickering back and forth for a bit about something that happened a couple of years ago. She insisted that the events had gone a certain way, and I was equally certain that the story was something else. When we finally confirmed, I was irked to find that she was, in fact, right. Even though the subject matter itself was insignificant, I disliked hearing “I told you so.” I eventually forced myself to sheepishly say, “okay fine, you were right,” but I really did not want to. 

No one likes to be wrong, whether it be in our personal or professional lives. Personally, we attach ourselves to our ideas and convictions, so when these ideas are challenged, it can feel like an attack on one’s self. Professionally, taking the example of litigation, the whole notion of arguing a case is that our side is the “right” one, and our job is to zealously advocate for it. But what if admitting our own shortcomings and recognizing our own fallibility could make us both better attorneys and better people?

Intellectual humility has many definitions, but the basic notion of this quality is the awareness that we could be wrong. Psychologist Dr. Tangney, who has conducted much research in this area, writes that intellectual humility encompasses “an ability to acknowledge one’s mistakes, imperfections, gaps in knowledge, and limitations… [and] openness to new ideas, contradictory information and advice.” 

When one thinks of common traits in lawyers, I would venture to say that humility is at the very bottom of that list–if it even makes the list at all. But maybe it should.

In the law school classroom, intellectual humility can help us be more open to others’ beliefs even if they appear entirely irreconcilable with our own. I distinctly remember one day from my Constitutional Law class during 1L year. We were talking about abortion, which tends to be one of the more heated areas of discussion. Our professor held an open forum and asked us all to share our thoughts on this matter. 

In Western culture, and especially in America, the conversation on abortion often lies on the spectrum of being either pro-choice (those who believe in the human right to choose one’s own reproductive freedom and autonomy) or being pro-life (those who believe that a fetus itself is a life that should be valued and protected). Yet, it is important to remember that this Western framework of thinking is influenced by Western history, norms, and customs, and it is not the only way of viewing this issue. Intellectual humility allows us to perceive the gap in this system of thinking.

Personally, I have a complicated relationship with the topic of reproductive freedom. I am from India, where the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act of 1994 is still in effect. To this day, under this law, prenatal sex determination of the fetus is illegal; parents cannot know the sex of their baby until birth. South Asian culture is still highly patriarchal, and especially in rural areas, families still openly prefer boy children, viewing girl children as a burden. This law was put into effect due to the rampant sex-selective abortions and female foeticide rates in the country. Although the law might not make much sense for an American context, it intends to protect Indian pregnant people’s right to continue their pregnancies.

Under the Western pro-choice framework, we value a pregnant person being able to choose what happens with their body because we view the issue from the angle that a person should be free to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. Yet, in India, the choice falls in the other direction: pregnant people, due to family and community pressure, may not be free to keep their wanted pregnancy. 

If two people disagree on the topic of aborton, it might not be about who is objectively “right” and who is objectively “wrong.” The issue is complex, but perhaps two people could each rightly identify as “pro-choice.” For one, the choice is to elect an abortion, yet for the other, the choice is to keep the child. Both uphold the same value of a pregnant person’s right to choose and a pregnant person’s autonomy, but they have different perceptions on how that freedom plays out given their sociocultural contexts. 

Reproductive freedom is just one narrow example, but in general, Western conceptions of feminism often do not apply neatly in other non-Western sociocultural contexts. Keeping a mindset of intellectual humility in our learning allows us to be open to other systems of thinking. Especially with more controversial issues, we all have a tendency to identify strongly with our convictions–it becomes very easy with this attitude to see someone with a different belief system as ‘The Other.’ We don’t have to change our convictions, but at least we can be open to better understanding from where others’ stances stem. It is not always black and white, and it is not always an easy ‘I am right’ and ‘they are wrong.’

Intellectual humility can also be relevant in the context of attorney-client relationships, particularly when it comes to admitting our mistakes. In one of my seminars, we discussed how lawyers are reluctant to admit their mistakes. From a liability perspective, attorneys may reasonably fear that admitting mistakes could lead to repercussions in the form of malpractice suits. We are also concerned with our credibility. Rightfully so, we do not want to look bad in front of clients, who place their trust in us and who believe in us to do what is right for them. But admitting our mistakes both creates a transparent relationship and allows for us to best rectify the situation. 

At my externship placement, an attorney on my team and I recently made a mistake. We called an elderly client who is a victim of elder abuse. He did not pick up, and without a second thought, we left a voicemail for the client. Only after we left the voicemail did we remember the case note on his file. The note says not to leave voicemails because a family member who doesn’t have our client’s best interest at heart has access to that telephone number. Since this was a relatively sensitive matter, we experienced a moment of panic at what might happen next. The attorney, though, didn’t falter: “We need to tell him.”

When we got a hold of the client, I was nervous. Since he was a victim of elder abuse, it had taken a lot for him to trust us to support him, and now we had put him at a potential risk. The attorney explained to him what had happened, and he was understandably anxious. We let him know that we would be even more careful going forward, and we assured him the best we could about next steps given the situation. 

I wish I could end this narrative with some magical happy ending where we were able to delete the voicemail and fix our mistake, but unfortunately, we weren’t able to. We made the wrong call, and we had to own up to it. Lawyers are human too, and sometimes we make mistakes that have less-than-ideal consequences. 

As the extern on the sidelines, though, I felt the experience deepen my respect for my supervising attorney. They did not think for even a moment to cover up the mistake, and I appreciate the integrity they modeled in owning up to it. Our client might be disappointed, but at least he knows that we will be honest with him. Had we not told him about the mistake, he may have found out another way, and that would have only damaged the attorney-client relationship further. Moreover, I would feel more comfortable going to this attorney if I make a mistake at work, knowing that they were able to hold themselves accountable for theirs. Overall, the intellectual humility to accept and own one’s mistake proved worthwhile in this situation.

Lawyers are trained to think in a certain way. We are taught to distinguish differences between similar facts that might not be clear at first glance. We are taught to navigate ambiguous territory and to look at matters from all angles. We are taught to use the facts to persuasively shape our positions. Intellectual humility can be a valuable tool in the lawyer’s thinking toolkit. If we remember to ask ourselves when we might be mistaken, where the gaps in our arguments might be, and what the limitations of our stances could be, we might develop more refined points and stronger client relationships as a result.

In a world where we place so much emphasis on being right, maybe we should ask ourselves more often: could I be wrong? Perhaps if we were less obsessed with being right, and more interested in being open-minded and accountable for our mistakes, we could be better lawyers — and people — because of it.


Roma Gujarathi is a third-year student at BC Law. Contact her at gujarath@bc.edu.

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