Why It’s OK to Tell a Client ‘I Don’t Know’

kabat-zinn-book

It’s OK not to know everything about the law, even though your friends and family assume that you do, because you went to law school.

Doctors run tests to diagnose ill patients. Pilots run through emergency checklists to diagnose aircraft malfunctions. Parents ask questions (of themselves and their children) to diagnose the source of temper tantrums.

But, because you went to law school, you are assumed to know everything about the law. It makes new lawyers uneasy. Your skill at quickly and accurately diagnosing a problem (just like other practical skills) will inevitably get better with time and experience, but until then—and even then—we should know why it’s OK for a lawyer to tell a client “I don’t know.”

Be Strong Enough to be Weak

Lawyers, especially new lawyers with a confidence problem, or who are obsessed by the wrong things, feel compelled to voice their opinion. You have to be strong enough to be weak, which is the title of a section from Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Wherever You Go, There You Are.

It’s like Kabat-Zinn wrote this specifically for lawyers:

If you are a strong-willed and accomplished person, you may often give the impression that you are invulnerable to feeling inadequate or insecure or hurt. This can be very isolating and ultimately cause you and others great pain.

On one hand, it’s ridiculous to say that lawyers don’t diagnose. The entire profession revolves around parsing law and facts behind a desk and giving voice to a legal argument in a boardroom or courtroom, long after the initial problem presented itself. Very few situations lend themselves to a firm diagnosis right off the bat.

But if we build an image of invincibility, strength, and special knowledge, as Kabat-Zinn writes, because we want to look confident, we instead become isolated. Not saying “I don’t know” is essentially a lie. Being strong enough to be weak means you have the courage to admit you don’t know. It’s perfectly acceptable, as Randall Ryder wrote last year. It means, like the doctor, you believe that diagnosing the problem is a major part of what it means to be a lawyer—and you have the confidence to make your belief known.

Again, Kabat-Zinn:

What looks like weakness is actually where your strength lies. And what looks like strength is often weakness, an attempt to cover up fear; this is an act or a facade, however convincing it might appear to others or even to yourself.

To be confident—to impress clients with true confidence—is to admit that you don’t know, but that you’re strong enough to find the answer.

(image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/cdrummbks/5040004494/)

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  • Mark

    I have found that I say “I don’t know” with considerable ease. The problem is that later in the day I realize that I could have figured it out with a little time spent researching. Of course by that time the potential client has moved down the hallway to the next lawyer.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/chrisbradley/ Chris Bradley

      If that potential client is so eager to get an answer no matter what, let that person move on to the next lawyer. You don’t need that client.

  • http://intelligentchallenge.com/ Mark Smith

    Great post and good to see JKZ mentioned – it may be a while before law firms follow Google and introduce mindfulness classes, but with all the change and stress in the profession, there’s certainly a need for it.

  • Benjamin Goodwin

    The unfortunate truth is clients expect a quick diagnosis. When they don’t get quick answers they suspect incompetency. What I typically do is take a thorough phone interview and do the research prior to the initial consultation if I am unsure about something. When the client comes in I have the answers they expect which gives me a better chance to land the client.

  • JP Britz

    It is true! Somehow, I always experience friends and associates who would like to set meetings for legal consultations but who wouldn’t give any detail or hint about their problems prior to the scheduled meetings. It leaves me at a limbo on what they would want us to discuss. And when we do meet, they expect me to know how to solve their legal problems right away! It is quite irritating really! I always find it a waste of my time because the meeting could be shortened if i knew beforehand what is to be discussed.

  • Hemant Sarin

    I have found clients appreciate a lawyer being candid and admitting his limitations in a particular case. Also saves a lawyer from disciplinary action if he goofs up.

  • http://fpbankruptcylaw.com/ Frank Pipitone

    I had this issue today. A client consulted with me on a potential bankruptcy filing and had an exemption question regarding life insurance proceeds.

    Had I not previously read this, I know I would have been fumbling around for an answer. With confidence I told him that I did not know and would get back to him with an answer.

    It felt quite empowering actually.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/chrisbradley/ Chris Bradley

      I sincerely hope it works out for you. Ideally, you will land the client—or already have—and this post simply gave you the ammo to handle the situation more effectively. Thanks for your feedback, Frank.

  • Mark Sanner

    Answers … $1
    Good answers … $5
    Articulate good answers … $20

    Correct answers … Call for a quote