People expect a lawyer to be able to answer tough questions. But what if you don’t know the answer?
I still remember my first day in torts class. Old man river, my respectable professor, called on me to analyze an opinion from some archaic case.
“Ms. (unfortunately easy-to-pronounce maiden name), is this paragraph law or dicta?”
My response went something like: “Uuuuuhhhhh … that paragraph is … ummmmmm … dicta? No wait, law. Errrr … maybe.” Meanwhile, in my head I’m screaming, “WTF, dude? This wasn’t in the assigned material!”
The professor then asked follow-up questions — interspersed with just the right amount of awkward silence — to get me to explain why I thought we were dealing with dicta or law.
Me: “Well … it’s Ditka, I mean dicta because it’s authoritative … uh, no … it’s law because it’s authoritative, err … um.”
And then before I could stop myself, I heard it come out of my mouth: “I don’t know.”
The collective gasp that followed was probably heard on every floor of the law school. I didn’t know if my head would explode before or after the professor kicked me out of his classroom. But what he said next was even more shocking: “I don’t know either!”
Suddenly, I was a freaking superstar — approving looks, winks, thumbs up from all corners of the room. I’d somehow managed to come up with the answer to his trick question.
A Star Answer Is Born
So what if I didn’t intentionally provide the correct response? At least I didn’t look like a huge ass in front of the class — which is exactly what I thought I’d be if I couldn’t provide an answer on the spot.
My professor went on to explain that there are many times when the best answer a lawyer can give to a tough question is, “I don’t know.”
While it may seem uncomfortable to you as the attorney, it’s far less awkward than giving a client incorrect information.
- So I went on to use it with clients: “Hmm, good question. I’m not sure off the top of my head, but let me get back to you in a few hours.”
- I said it to my bosses: “I don’t know, but I can do some quick research to find out.”
- Opposing counsel would hear: “Gee, I’m not sure, but I’ll let you know.”
In a nutshell, I didn’t pretend to know something I didn’t. Ever.
And you know what?
Not once in seven years did anyone question my fitness to practice law or express any kind of displeasure with my honesty.
I didn’t spout off some malpractice-worthy advice (then lie awake at night with worry), and everyone got the information they needed. It was a total win-win.
So although I didn’t remember much about torts after law school, I never forgot that “I don’t know” can sometimes be the best answer.
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