The Nature of Expertise

In this recent blog post, I considered a kind of ambiguity relating to or that I hadn’t encountered previously. My first, and offline, attempt at an analysis was feeble. My next attempt, which I posted, made a good deal more sense, but a prominent linguist pointed out several flaws and offered his take on those issues, which I cheerfully co-opted.

I’m pleased with what’s now on the blog, a version of which will be in the third edition of MSCD. Until someone tells me that I’m mistaken—it happens!—I think it does a decent job of analyzing what is, in the words of another prominent linguist, a “very subtle and tricky” kind of ambiguity.

But after making the changes reflected in the current version, I asked myself, Am I an expert? What kind of an expert would need someone to drag him over the finish line in the way that my linguist benefactor did? Here’s what I ended up deciding:

Generally, having talent is a necessary ingredient for becoming a serious expert in your field, but it’s not sufficient. It helps to come from a background that gives you the opportunity to identify and nourish that talent. And you need to spend a long time developing that talent. Then, whether you’re acknowledged as an expert will depend on whether there’s a market for your expertise. These factors have been explored extensively, for example by Malcolm Gladwell, who popularized his “10 thousand hour rule” in his book Outliers.

So, how does my contract-drafting shtick fit in this scheme of things? Well, my family set great store by the written word, so that started me on the road to what I’m doing now. I long ago passed the 10-thousand-hour mark, because six years ago I stopped practicing law and opted to focus on the building blocks of contract language. And perhaps because only a handful of people have attempted to do what I now do, I’m able to keep doing it.

But you do need talent. What’s my talent? When it comes to lawyering, no one would confuse me for some sort of dealmaking genius. When it comes to linguistics, I’m laughably unschooled, so I rely on the goodwill of others to bail me out. I even needed a mathematics professor to explain to me how to handle formulas in contracts. And I’m not a fount of wisdom; I routinely have to take more than one crack at an issue, with my readers often being the ones to set me straight.

But if I didn’t have something to offer, I would have fallen by the wayside long ago. I think a couple of things have helped me.

First, I’m equipped with decent semantic acuity. By the standards of, oh, the Geoffrey Nunbergs of the world, I’m a rank amateur. But I can still make a useful contribution, because I have a knack for language that few transactional lawyers share, and I understand contracts and the nature of contract language in a way that linguists and litigation-writing commentators don’t. So talent doesn’t have to be one dimensional—an ability to play the piano, or make sushi, like few others. Instead, talent can come from being able to combine skills in ways that others haven’t.

And second, I have a mania for order and efficiency. I like the trains to run on time (but not in a fascist way). My family has learned to spot, and rib me about, what they call my “society policeman” tendencies. Talent doesn’t have to be entirely a function of intellectual horsepower. It can also come from having a different perspective, a different motivating force. My zeal for order is what has kept me worrying at the same issues, year after year, and refining my analysis, as opposed to packing up and moving on to something new.

So I guess I’m at peace with what I bring to what I do.

About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.

2 thoughts on “The Nature of Expertise”

  1. Ken: Once upon a time my undergraduate Milton professor led us in a discussion of whether Milton was a great writer. If you’ve spent much time wading through Milton’s stuff, you know it’s not a slam dunk in favor of greatness. Ultimately, the conclusion was that Milton was indeed a great writer because post-Milton authors wrote differently than pre-Milton writers.
    While the focus of your post is more on expertise than influence, I think the effect someone has on the landscape is more important than talent or expertise.

    • Hear, hear. An ability to make use of several disciplines and a good editing instinct in a worthy cause, are just as valuable as academic brilliance in a narrow subject.

      Though I only studied Milton pre-university, Brian’s point resonates with me. It was hard work at the time, but memorable: pandemonium, no narrow frith he had to cross, etc.


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