I asked myself how to handle tough legal questions several times and I know it’s on your mind too because it’s one of the questions which came up from the participants in my workshops. In fact, their question sounded more like this: “why don’t clients get that, as a lawyer, you cannot have an answer to everything, all the time, especially in that specific moment when they are calling you?”

Before taking the personal growth path, in my profession, I was confronted with this type of situation on a regular basis. In fact, if I look closely, I can say that most of my clients’ questions were about stuff I DID NOT know or, better said, did not have an answer to on the spot. I would, typically, do one or more of the following things:

  • be nice and helpful;
  • try to look smart;
  • take any request out of fear of closing the door on future requests and eventually end up swamped with work.

In school, if we didn’t know the answer, we wouldn’t pass the test or we’d get a poor mark. In practising our profession as lawyers, if we don’t know the answer i.e. cannot express a legal opinion on the spot, what do we do?

Here are a few tips about what you could do, right there on the spot, with your client:

1. Summarize

Summarize your client’s question to make sure you’ve captured correctly and entirely the facts and dilemma. You don’t need to repeat everything like a parrot, but you do need to make sure you’ve gotten their question fully. You can also (and I strongly advise you do this!) write the summary in an email, after your initial conversation, to confirm the agreement on your mandate and what it is that you need to address in your legal opinion.

2. Clarify

Clarify the context! Ask questions: factual questions, detail-oriented questions, but also open-ended questions. These are essential! You can also revert via email with more clarification questions, or schedule a further clarification call, or meeting.

3. Define

Define the framework! e.g. “this is a question of corporate law, specifically about limited liability companies’ formation”, or “… director’s mandate”, or “… in principle…”/ “the rule of thumb is…”. State the framework and inform them about what you would have to review or look into, in order to have the specific answer they’re looking for. It gives your client a clear sense of “you know what you’re doing”, and “they’re in good hands”.

4. Identify

Identify any stakeholders – is the opinion or answer your client’s looking for a mere question of law or is it something that depends on or might be impacted by stakeholders: business partners, public authorities, various departments within their company etc.? While your client may want to know what the law says, it is important to consider all other (decision) factors. In other words, how does the law apply in their case?

5. Be straight!

Be straight! If it’s not your field or expertise, be straight about it. It’s gonna cost your client time and money for you to look into it. Instead, you could be straight with them about it and propose you take the lead (after all, it is you whom they called, and, thus, trust), and partner up with a colleague who does already know and have experience in the field.

6. Don’t be afraid

Don’t be afraid to just say “I Don’t’ Know”. Nobody expects you to know everything on the spot. In fact, look at their question with an inquisitive and truly interested mindset, curiously. This is an opportunity to train and develop yourself professionally, your business acumen, which is essential to understanding your clients and their needs and getting what it is they want to achieve. Let them know how much time you need to look into it and by when you’ll get back to them.

7. Laugh

Finally, my favorite one: have a laugh about what you don’t know! – I always say we get too serious sometimes. Not to diminish the importance of the client’s case, or be inappropriate in a business meeting or call, but I can see how declaring that I need a software upgrade 😊 to deal with all the ideas storming through my brain, can take the pressure away from the whole situation I find myself in.  

Try these on, and let me know how it went, what you discovered?
What are some techniques you are using to handle tough legal questions on the spot?

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