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The Ultimate Answer to Tough Questions

By Annie Little

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.

Illustration ©iStockPhoto.com

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Categories: Communications Skills, Practice Skills, Professionalism, You At Work
Originally published October 7, 2014
Last updated August 21, 2020
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Photo of Annie Little Annie Little

Annie Little is a lawyer career coach dedicated to helping attorneys articulate their transferable skills since founding JD Nation in 2012. She’s also the creator of the Make Your Next Move™ program for attorneys who want a practical process to find and land their ideal job. You can follow her on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

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