Ask the Stupid Questions, Get Smarter

Many lawyers often go out of their way to show off how much they know about a particular subject. We make a great deal out of being “experts” in our particular field; and in my jurisdiction, there are even requirements you have to fulfill before you can call yourself a “specialist” in an area of law. Oh yes, knowing junk is valuable currency in attorney-land, but what unfortunately seems more important to some is avoiding looking stupid.

Somewhere in our legal training we took it to heart that being perceived as ignorant on a particular procedure or precedent is the hallmark of a crappy lawyer. And that’s garbage.


All lawyers started law school with roughly the same amount of understanding of the law, viz. jack-squat. That fact is advertised rather quickly when the professors begin their Socratic-method questioning. What gets implanted in law students early on, then, is a very instinctive aversion to the appearance of ignorance. When a professor asks questions about a case that a student doesn’t know the answer to, the snickering begins. I’ve been on both sides of this coin. I have looked like and felt like an idiot while in the professor’s cross-hairs, and I have chuckled to myself when I watched another student go all Butch Cassidy off a cliff of questioning. I’m not proud of that, but I’m also not alone. Somehow, the gunners in law school rub off on most of us in some way. We come to envy someone who already has the answers to a question and pity someone that doesn’t.

Point is, we develop a pretty damaging association between shame and ignorance on a legal subject. This association contributes mightily to stunted growth in the development of legal “expertise.” I say that it stunts growth because it prevents us from asking the questions necessary to finding a foothold in our chosen area of practice. We come out of law school without knowing much about anything except how to find answers to tough legal questions; that’s all that we’ve got, really. But our ambition to use this one tool that we have is tempered by the fact that we don’t want to look like a rookie by asking questions that contemporaries or more seasoned attorneys might consider basic or elementary. The irony is that if there is one thing that Socrates stood for, it’s that the path to knowledge is through the recognition of ignorance. The law school brand of the Socratic-method however, has taught us to be ashamed of what we don’t know.

Cowboy up and start asking questions

New attorneys (as a whole) in today’s market face an unprecedented lack of developmental supervision. Jobs, and accordingly, mentors are harder to come by. Solo practice has become an alternative of necessity for many new lawyers, which combines the (sometimes) unfortunate state of isolation with a natural lack of experience and skill. But because law school teaches us that a dearth of understanding is shameful, we hesitate to ask the basic questions. And without answers to those basic questions, we new lawyers begin our voyages into our chosen fields completely rudderless.

So how and where do you ask the early questions? If your state bar has a listserv, start there. If you think that a question like “how do I draft a quit-claim deed?” will make you sound stupid, it won’t. If you think it will make you sound like a new lawyer, it will. Own it, don’t run from it. Seasoned lawyers enjoy helping younger colleagues; it keeps them from going nuts. If you want more personal interaction, start volunteering and asking how to do things at a clinic. I swear to you that people will help you figure things out. And unlike law school, no one that matters will make you feel stupid about it.



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  • Joe

    Great post. I’ve found one of the most incredibly helpful questions during my first few years of practice (and still today) is the simple, “why?” I use it all the time. The amazing thing is, rather than make you look like a dolt, it often makes the other person (client, colleague, opposing counsel, whoever) step back and think about whatever comment they just made. It’s incredible. Try it.

    • Tyler White

      I think “why?” is often the most important question to ask. It helps provide some context for what you are doing and gets at the root of whatever issue you are working on better than any other question.

      My 4 year old asks it all the time. Smart kid.

  • Agreed – great post and comment. Asking why is so valuable. I learn something new every day in immigration law, despite having 20 years experience, because I ask questions. No one knows all the answer! One tip, when you do pose/post a question, give some indication that you have done some research on your own to try to find the answer. I will answer questions on our MD immigration list serve if the questioner indicates her research. For those that just pose “how do I….” I am less inclined to answer.

  • Graham Martin

    This is a great piece of advice, Tyler. Well put. I wouldn’t know half of what I know now if I hadn’t asked the “stupid” questions when they arose. And now I love helping people who ask stupid questions of me. It’s a great way to learn and should be employed by everyone, not just the solos.

  • The old saying “The only really stupid question is the one that you don’t ask,” is always true.