During the era that The American Lawyer described as the “Law Firm Golden Age,” fueled by surging demand for high-end legal services, so much business magically arrived at law firms’ doors that firms competed for lawyers, not clients. Under such conditions, there was little reason to pay attention to things like business development skills.  It was assumed that rainmakers were “naturals,” possessing of some innate gift that was a mystery to everyone else.

Unaware of business history or norms, rainmakers couldn’t recognize that their success was largely the product of the most optimal and sustained demand conditions ever seen. When there are many more buyers than sellers, everyone gets business. When you’re making lots of rain, why wouldn’t you conclude that you were skilled at it?

Longtime Library of Congress historian Daniel Boorstin observed, “The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.”

Today, demand for traditional legal services is declining, and there’s an oversupply of lawyers competing for it along with a growing array of non-law-firm competitors such as “off-shoring” and technology solutions. Law firms recognize that they’ve got to get many more hands on the revenue-generation oars. 

Lawyers, too, have awakened to the fact that business development is no longer a nice-to-do but a survival skill. As a result, they’re concerned that their firms aren’t providing formal training in that discipline. (So much for believing in “naturals.”)

To understand this dynamic, and grasp how to deal with the problem, we turn to The Four Stages of Competence, a four-stage model that describes a person's path from ignorance to mastery:

  • Unconscious Incompetence
  • Conscious Incompetence
  • Conscious Competence
  • Unconscious Competence

If we're blissfully unaware of our ignorance, there's little we can do about it, and no reason to care. Therefore, one of the first steps to acquiring new skills is to become aware of what you don't know. This discovery can be uncomfortable, as is the experience of not being very good at what you're trying to do.

Acquiring competency is different than education, which is merely absorbing information without any working application of it. Law school is education; lawyers learn about the law, but not how to apply their knowledge.

Competency requires you to apply knowledge through challenging attempts. It’s the doing of the thing. For example, I can lecture about business development techniques, but unless you practice them, you’ll never be competent.


Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence 

This stage means "We don't know that we don't know."

Throughout the Golden Age, lawyers weren’t aware of any business development skill deficiency because they were also unaware of the need for business development. After all, they had plenty of work without worrying about BD.  

For a long time, they even argued that business development was “unseemly” for lawyers. It was normal to deny the usefulness of business development skill since the skill and its application were beyond consideration. Ignorance was bliss, indeed. Lawyers were happily naive, not realizing they weren’t competent. It was simply irrelevant.

Fast forward to the present.  

Lawyers have awakened to the importance of having their own clients, and they know they’ll no longer simply waltz in the door. Reluctantly, they go to networking events, hoping something good will happen, having no idea why they return empty-handed.

They know that something isn’t working, but have no idea what it is or how to fix it. They don't know what they don't know.


Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence

"We know that we don't know."

Often, our trial-and-error experiences bring about this awareness. There’s much more to business development than you realized, and you don't really know what you thought you knew. Realizing that your ability is limited, your confidence drops. You may feel overwhelmed by what seems to be a vast knowledge area you can't quite grasp.

You’re aware of your problem, and may understand what’s needed, but have no knowledge or confidence in how to get it. You may feel overwhelmed by how much you need to learn. 

How long you’re stuck in this state depends on factors such as your determination to learn and the degree to which you accept your incompetence.


Stage 3: Conscious Competence

At this level you acquire rainmaking skills and knowledge, put them into practice and gain experience and confidence, and work on refining them. This process often goes in fits and starts as you learn, forget, plateau and start anew. After enough training and repetitions, you’ll acquire proficiency, but it doesn’t come automatically. You know what you know, and can apply it as long as you concentrate and focus. You have to think your way through what feels unnatural and foreign. Repetition, practice and experience are necessary to advance to the final learning stage.

Practice is key. Without it, you may progress well to Stage 3 but will struggle to reach Stage 4, and may regress to Stage 2.


Stage 4: Unconscious Competence

In this final stage, the skill is automatic and comes naturally without any conscious thought. You’ve internalized the knowledge and can apply it without thought or concentration, completing the tasks with grace and speed.

At this stage, At this point, the skill is so practiced that it enters the subconscious mind and requires no mental focus to execute it with proficiency. The skill becomes as second-nature as walking and the person will know it so well that they can articulate it to others. Continual maintenance is often required to stay in phase IV; otherwise the individual might experience a regression back to Phase III.

“I would not call mastery ‘unconscious.’ It is simply ‘wired in.’ That, literally, occurs when the neuro-cognitive system acquires new brain cells. This does not mean that one is ‘unconscious’ but that one’s responses become automatic; about which, one can be highly conscious.”
— Richard Moore

Although this is the ideal state, you'll need to make sure that lawyers avoid complacency, and stay abreast of their fields. You may also need to remind them how difficult it was to reach this state, so that they're tolerant with people at the Conscious Incompetence stage!

People at this stage can be vulnerable to complacency; learning ceases and "unconscious competence" may degrade to ignorance of or blindness to new methods, technologies, etc., and the expert finds himself once again unconsciously incompetent. 

This describes many successful rainmakers, who acquired their (presumed) unconscious competence under conditions that no longer exist, which makes them unconsciously incompetent relative to today’s conditions.

As already mentioned, there are plenty of people who become so instinctual at a particular skill that they forget the theory - because they no longer need it - and as such make worse teachers than someone who has good ability at the conscious competence stage. (We see this frequently with Hall of Fame athletes who attempt to become coaches.)


“Enlightened Competence” “Reflective Competence”

"One will only know a maximum of 80% of anything...and the remaining 20% is never the same." (W McLaughlin)

And from John Addy, Aug 2004: 

"I suggest the 5th stage can be 'complacency.' That is, when the person continues to practise the skill which has become automatic and second nature, but, over time, allows bad habits to form. For example, an exemplary driver makes a silly mistake. Or, a trainer, believing himself or herself to be an expert, fails to prepare adequately for a training session and drops a clanger. These are the dangers of thinking you can do something so easily, you become complacent. Complacency can also cause problems if the person doesn't keep up-to-date with the skill. As techniques and approaches move forward, the person remains behind using set methods which have perhaps become stale, out-dated or less relevant to today. In each case above the person must reassess personal competence (perhaps against a new standard) and step back to the conscious competence stage until mastery is attained once again. Complacency provides a useful warning to those who think they have reached the limit of mastery. It can also encourage people to search for continuous improvement." 

From Lorgene A. Mata, PhD, December 2004: 

"First, I think calling this model 'conscious competence learning model' is not appropriate or accurate because it gives the impression that the model considers conscious competence as the highest level of learning when in fact, it is only the third level. Based on this model, it is 'unconscious competence' that is the end-goal of learning. But, calling the model unconscious competence learning model may not sound fitting either. I therefore suggest to call this model simply as 'competence leaning model' without the qualifying term 'conscious'. Secondly, I find this model applicable mainly if not exclusively to the acquisition of physical skills or competencies and not to higher mental skills where conscious, non-repetitive, complex and creative mental operations are demanded. Thirdly, I believe the highest level of competence learning is not level 4, 'unconscious competence', but a higher 5th level which I call 'enlightened competence'. At this level, the person has not only mastered the physical skill to a highly efficient and accurate level which does not anymore require of him conscious, deliberate and careful execution of the skill but instead done instinctively and reflexively, requiring minimum efforts with maximum quality output, and is able to understand the very dynamics and scientific explanation of his own physical skills. In other words, he comprehends fully and accurately the what, when, how and why of his own skill and possibly those of others on the same skill he has. In addition to this, he is able to transcend and reflect on the physical skill itself and be able to improve on how it is acquired and learned at even greater efficiency with lower energy investment. Having fully understood all necessary steps and components of the skill to be learned and the manner how they are dynamically integrated to produce the desired level of overall competence, he is thereby able to teach the skill to others in a manner that is effective and expedient. You wrote in your website that this 5th level may be called 'conscious competence of unconscious competence'. But to me, this term is too complex and unwieldy to most people. My suggested label which is 'enlightened competence', I believe, is more appropriate for this 5th level of competence that indeed exists and is attainable in some cases." 

From Roger Kane, November 2005: 

"I have been aware of and using this four level model's concepts for a great number of years... But, I always felt that there was another level (level 5), based upon the skills of level 4, that reflected an ability to be reactively creative. That is, to do for the first time something never before considered. The ability to intuitively react to a new situation with an optimally accurate response. The "Wow, I didn't know I could really go to that level!" experience. I have occasionally happened upon this in both snow and water skiing, tennis and driving race cars when there was no time to think about how to solve a new puzzle, but my instinctive reaction did so. I have also seen skiers I coach momentarily get there without understanding why or knowing how to get back there. I suspect this is what is often referred to as 'being in the flow' or 'in the zone' and is more dependent on 'allowing' and holistic trust of the 'body genius' rather than causing from linear thoughts or inputs. While potential for this level 5 of performance can be trained and prepared for, few can produce it on demand (i.e., Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods). The foundation definitely lies in level 4 but the results are expressed as the ultimate performance potential of an individual." (Roger Kane, Director of Education and Training Sunburst Ski Area, Kewaskum, Wisconsin, November 2005)

There’s a negative aspect of unconscious competence, or a fifth stage (albeit not inevitably following the prior learning), or perhaps more appropriately stage one (unconscious incompetence) of a new learning cycle - unconscious due to ignorance or denial - since the ignorance concerns a new form of competence or capability.

"Confident Incompetence" is a warning of the dangers of lapsing into complacency after attaining mastery in anything.

The individual is able to perform consistently at Level 4, and then de-construct their experience for both themselves and others, so each may learn to apply the skill consistently.

S. March: a Reflective Competence practitioner who knows that, whilst the current job practice is as good as is available, there must be a better way to do something - i.e., the eventual output is product/service innovation that revolutionises the way the world regards and uses the product or service. This approach may well involve disregarding the knowledge that has led to the practitioner's current scale of competence, and possibly requires assumption of a conscious incompetence state (though conscious incompetence is not a flattering, or indeed, accurate label for such an experienced and knowledgable practitoner) so that the problem can be viewed without any pre-conceptions?..."

The above is an interesting question. The scenario raises the possibility that learning a new method/skill (in response to external innovation or demands for example) for an existing area of conscious/reflective competence might suitably be regarded as the start of a new Conscious Competence cycle. The last 4th/5th stage of the first cycle is for many people the early stage(s) of a new cycle of learning in new methods. Conscious Competence in an existing skill can easily equate to Unconscious Incompetence in a new method now required to replace the hitherto consciously competent capability. The Refective Competence level (suggested fifth level - see Will Taylor's diagram above) in the first cycle could equate to the Consciously Incompetent level in the new cycle. Reflective learners possess expert competence in the subject at a determined skill or method, but not in different and new methods. So perhaps representing the learning of new methods for existing expertise (at say level 4 or 4) in terms of a repeating 4/5-part cycle is a reasonable way to approach the 'response to external innovation' scenario, or 'internal innovation' for the same reasons.  [Longtime rainmakers]


Practical Analogy

We can better envision these four stages if we use them in a practical application. For this example, we will use the skill of driving a car to illustrate the progression through these four phases:

Unconscious incompetence = Non-Driver

Little 10-year-old Timmy is unaware about the skill of driving a car because his parents drive him everywhere and that is how he gets around, so he does not know that there is skill behind driving a car. The skill of driving a car is not a part of Timmy's life, so he is not worried about not having a competency in it.

Conscious Incompetence = Student Driver

Little Timmy is a teenager with high hopes of taking his high school sweetheart out in his family car. But first he needs to get his driver's license. He gets behind the wheel of his father's car parked in the driveway, starts it up, and instead of going forward, he accidentally puts it in reverse and knocks over the trashcan behind it. "Not as easy as it looks," Timmy says to himself. "I'm going to have to practice." Timmy at this point is consciously aware that he is an unskilled driver. This is a good motivating force to practice.

Conscious Competence = Passed Driving Test

With sweaty palms and an emotionless Department of Motor Vehicles official in the passenger seat next to him, Timmy takes his driving exam. Luckily, his countless hours of driver's training paid off because he passes the exam. Timmy is a competent driver, but he must consciously focus on his training and lessons in order to apply them when he is driving.

Unconscious Competence = Cell phone Driving

Timmy grew up and became an important businessman and is driving his new BMW to his office. Always the road multi-tasker, Timmy is talking on his cell phone with one hand, jotting down notes with the other hand, and taking intermittent bites of a sandwich, all while driving in stop and go traffic. Timmy has practiced driving enough to the point where he does not have to focus on driving anymore to perform that skill with proficiency, even if he knows that he should to avoid accidents.

From Andrew Dyckhoff, January 2007: 

"My suggestion for the 5th level would be 'Chosen Conscious Competence'. People often use the driving analogy to explain the model. In the analogy people normally relate the transition from a learner having to think: mirror, signal, maneuvre, engage, etc., to jumping in and driving off without consciously thinking about the process. When we go on an advanced driving course we learn that there are certain things we should ALWAYS CONSCIOUSLY CHECK. These include looking to see whether there is an idiot coming the other way through a red light, and stopping so you can see the road behind the tyres of the car in front of you, etc. The sales example is that excellent sales people discipline themselves never to assume and always to check.. To summarise, there are some elements of what we do that are so critical to successful performance that the highest level of learning is to choose to remain consciously competent, as with the advanced driving analogy: unconscious competence is fine when we are changing gear, but not when passing through a green light..." 

It would seem that mature practice involves a mature recognition that one is inevitably ignorant of many things one does not know (i.e., we revisit 'unconscious incompetence' repeatedly or continually; i.e., 'consciousness of unconscious incompetence'). Repeatedly, we are continuously rediscovering 'beginner's mind'.

"We revisit conscious incompetence, making discoveries in the holes in our knowledge and skills, becoming discouraged, which fuels incentive to proceed (when it does not defeat). We perpetually learn, inviting ongoing tutelage, mentoring and self-study (ongoing conscious competence). We continually challenge our 'unconscious competence' in the face of complacency, areas of ignorance, unconscious errors, and the changing world and knowledge base: We challenge our unconscious competence when we recognize that a return to unconscious incompetence would be inevitable. We do this in part by self-study and use of peer review - such that mature practice encompasses the entire 'conscious competence' model, rather than supercedes it as the hierarchical model might suggest." Will Taylor, Chair, Department of Homeopathic Medicine, National College of Natural Medicine