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Never Assume

December 11, 2014

The title really should be “Never assume anything on matters of particular importance”…

But thats not quite as engaging, is it?

Today I want to lay out the ideas that you should:

  1. Never assume anything on matters of extreme importance
  2. The number of assumptions you make should be inversely proportional to the importance of your decision

Lets discuss this.

Never Assume

Earlier this morning I was drafting a complex invoice for a client. Multiple attachments, a case with multiple lessors etc. Like a good paralegal, I was paying attention to detail, double checking my spelling, my sentence grammar, having all the right attachments. I was sharp enough to pick up on ambiguity in my instructing solicitor’s instruction and clarify whether a Statement of Account or Statement of Professional Fees and Disbursements was required based on ‘Statement’ as the directive. I thought I was doing a decent job. Confidently, I hit ‘send.’

Less than 30 seconds later the instructing solicitor was in my office.

I’m informed that I have sent the email and invoices to the wrong address – a sin in the legal field. I remember one snippet of dialogue in particular:

“I… I assumed we were sending the invoice to our client” [1]

“Never assume.”

You see, ordinarily you are invoicing your own client. I had done this dozens if not hundreds of times in the billing for the month. On this occasion we were sending invoices through the opposing solicitor though because it was a very strange case wherein our solicitor had in effect acted like a barrister at points. I had actually been told this beforehand, but because of my mistaken assumption, I simply disregarded this.

You’re probably thinking here – “big deal. So what if the email was sent to the wrong person? Just resend it.”

Well, yes, I did resend the email. And all was fine. But as my instructing solicitor noted (quite politely and calmly as befits his character), I was lucky.

Imagine you have drafted advice to your client advising them on their chances of success in pursuing their claim. You advise them that you see very minimal chances of success. You then send it to the other side.

There goes the case, any compensation you may have got, and all your arguments.

Luckily, these were invoices, and the mistake was in sending to our own side, which… is okay. But the point here is that you need to check everything and anything to get things right. If its your responsibility to make sure things go to plan, you need to make them go to plan, whatever the problem. The answer is not to go to sea on a leaky raft to escape responsibility. It is to persevere.

Never assume when vital details are in play. This leads us to…

The no assumptions you make should be inversely proportional to the importance of your decision

A bold title like ‘Never assume’ sounds like a good, hard nosed line. Until you look at it. Should I not assume the sun will rise? Should I not assume that tall basketball players appear more often in basketball? Can I assume I can arrive 5 minutes late having done it 5 times before?

The fact is that we don’t have time to evaluate and rigorously analyse every single assumption we make. At some point precept has to fall away to action. We have to do, to act. We don’t have time to ponder every assumption we make. It simply isn’t worth it.

However, as the assumption begins playing a larger and larger role in our lives, and acquires greater value, then the assumptions should be questioned. That is, instead of making assumptions we should make reasoned inquiry and analysis.

For instance, if you’re buying a house you could assume that it doesn’t matter what bank you go to – they’re all the same. However, since buying a house is perhaps the most significant financial decision of your life, you probably don’t want to make such an assumption. Instead, you should research different rates, find differences, and recognise the power of compound returns.

Similarly, that email from earlier could have affected dozens of participants in the legal matter and undone hours upon hours of solicitors’ work if its contents had been different. A few seconds spent double checking and verifying the email address is well worth the possible loss of hundreds if not thousands of dollars worth of time and value.

Conclusions

Assumptions are an efficient, powerful tool. But they are also a harmful tool. As the gap in value between perfect information and assumptions widen, we need to adjust our use of assumptions. The number assumptions we make should be inversely proportional to the importance of your decision. And on important matters, we should never assume.

—-.

[1] – The second I uttered the word ‘assume’, I winced internally. I knew what was coming!

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