Be Honest About Your (Lack of) Knowledge and Experience

The life of a young solo attorney, or a new attorney, can be a difficult one. Among other challenges, you will constantly be faced with questions you don’t know the answers to.

Instead of guessing, or giving it your best shot, be honest about your knowledge, or lack thereof.

Don’t misrepresent what you do/don’t know

We just had another baby (like, last Friday) and spent two days at the hospital. I was shocked at how many employees feigned knowledge, only to backtrack when asked for more information. Here’s my favorite disturbing exchange.

Me: “Is it normal for the baby to do _____?”

Hospital person: “Oh yeah, nothing to worry about.”

Me: “Are you sure, because somebody else said to watch for _____.”

Hospital person: “Oh really? I’m new in this department, so I’ll go ask someone.”

Yes, that was a real exchange. Sure, I was more edgy than usual given that I had barely slept. Then again, we were talking about the health and wellbeing of my newborn child.

After that conversation, I had approximately 0% faith in that particular hospital employee. They had destroyed all credibility based on that exchange. If they had been honest initially and disclosed that, rather than just trying to make me feel better, I would have been ok with that. Not thrilled, but I would have been ok with it. As a fellow young professional, I would have understood the situation. Making stuff up, however, and then admitting it, is not something I understand or appreciate.

For a lawyer, answering questions like could be a breach of ethical and professional obligations.

“I don’t know” is perfectly acceptable and required at times

Lawyers have ethical obligations. Lawyers have to abide by the rules of professional responsibility, such as Rule 1.1: Competence, of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct, “A lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client. Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.”

If you get asked a question that you don’t know, or can’t answer, be honest. If you are a new attorney, or a new solo attorney, you will encounter lots of situations that are unfamiliar. You need to get comfortable saying “I’ll look into that” or “I don’t know” rather than bs-ing your way through it and hoping for the best. There’s nothing wrong with checking with a colleague or mentor before answering a question.

Trust is predicated on many things, but honesty is one way to establish it. If your client wants an attorney who will give them an answer on the spot, then they have the right to find another attorney. That can be the first sign of a very problematic client.

I’m a youngish, and newish attorney. I feel older and more experienced, but that’s because I had another life before being a lawyer, and running my own firm for nearly two years created a stiff learning curve. I say “it depends” or “I’m not sure” more often now than I did when I started my practice. The more I practice, the more I want/need to know before helping a client making an informed decision.

I’ve had plenty of clients retain me in spite of my inexperience. I don’t shy away from answering questions about when I graduated or how many cases I’ve handled. By being honest, those clients realized they could trust me. There are plenty of other lawyers with more experience. But I’ve also got plenty of good things going for me. For one, I’m honest, and if you asked my clients, that would likely be the number one thing they like about me.

Being a young attorney is not easy. But don’t make things worse by making up answers and turning yourself into a malpractice lawsuit waiting to happen. Oh, and watch out for new people in the maternity ward.

(photo:http://www.flickr.com/photos/gregorytaylor/229872911/)

Practice Management

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  • menachem

    I am a 2L and wish professors would share this simple but important lesson. We are not taught the value of saying “I dont know“ or “let me look into that“ (outside of cold calling). Ultimatlely, acknowledging our ignorance both builds and projects confidence.

  • Leon Carney

    Good post