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August 16, 2021 Practice Points

Answering Your Client’s Legal Questions: It Depends

It is important for attorneys to understand their clients’ underlying concerns to better help answer the clients’ questions.

By William J. Hale

There is a running joke among lawyers and those that interact with lawyers that no matter what question you ask the answer is always, “It depends.” Part of why that joke is so persistent is because it is often based in reality—the initial answer is often, “It depends.” That can be frustrating for both the person asking the question and the person giving the answer. It is important for attorneys to understand the underlying concerns to better help answer the client’s question.

Help Clients Understand That There Is No Clear Answer

Attorneys should explain to their clients the law can be quite complicated. While there are general rules and statutes, the nitty gritty of a case often comes down to details which distinguish one case from another. If everything were cut-and-dry with a solid answer, then there would be no lawsuits. Both sides would be able to look at the situation and come up with the same conclusion, without the need to battle it out in court. Therefore, there would be no need for lawyers! The fact that there is a different opinion on both sides of any issue is an example of why the answer to a question may depend. When answering a client’s question, it is important to prepare clients for an attorney’s vague and often hypothetical answers.

Be Specific

One way to help answer your client’s question is to provide the answer to a more specific or narrow question. If the question is broad or general, then the answer could vary widely, based on whatever additional facts may enter in. Attorneys should remind clients that specific questions are more likely going to produce specific answers. For example, think of a question that seems straightforward such as, “Is it legal to punch someone?” It would seem the answer should be, “No.” But the answer to that question actually depends on the various circumstances. Are you a boxer? Are you defending yourself against a legitimate (and equal) threat? Are you reasonably able to safely escape the situation without punching? So, if your client is not thrilled with your hypothetical or vague answer to their question, remind them that there are certain specific details that may help create a specific answer

Acknowledge That Facts Can Change the Answer

Because the various facts can affect an answer so greatly, it is important for the client know that the answer can change. One reason why some lawyers may be hesitant to give a straight answer is because they are afraid that the facts will change or more facts will come to light and then the answer would no longer be valid. By acknowledging that the answer is very dependent on other factors, an attorney may be more willing to provide a firm or straight forward answer related to the known facts at hand.

Clients often crave a hard “yes” or “no” legal answer. However, this is rarely possible in the eyes of the law. Attorneys should educate their clients on the case at hand and acknowledge the factual dependence of the law.

William J. Hale is an attorney at Goosmann Law Firm in Omaha, Nebraska.

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