Lawyering Skills

The Ultimate Answer to Tough Questions

By | Oct.07.14 | Communicating, Daily Dispatch, Professionalism, Skills

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.

Annie Little is a trained life coach, former practicing attorney and the founder of JD Nation, where she helps lawyers regain control of their careers, beat burnout and start enjoying their lives again. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Don’t be shy; say hi!

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4 Responses to “The Ultimate Answer to Tough Questions”

  1. Peter C. Walsh
    7 October 2014 at 10:02 pm #

    We are in the business of “I don’t know”. Clients may try repeatedly to solve a problem before bringing it to a lawyer. Can you blame them, it’s a lot cheaper if you can solve the problem yourself.
    Finally, they realize they need professional help. In they come for a consultation. Oftentimes, the facts they report to you are either immaterial or half understood. From this we are expected to derive a response that will inspire confidence. It is often not, “I don’t know.” That response could very well cause the potential client to leave and hire someone that will tell them what they want to hear, never the best choice of counsellor.
    I do believe there are times when “I don’t know” is appropriate because it comes organically and is the only credible response. Yet, more often, I think something along the lines of … this matter will require greater investigation and research, is the better response.