I don’t know


We tell clients that if they’re not sure about something, it’s okay to say “I don’t know”. In fact, we encourage it. But when a client or prospective client asks us a question and we don’t know the answer, we’re often uncomfortable “admitting” we don’t know.

Because we’re supposed to know. 

And if we don’t know and we should, or the client thinks we should, we look bad. So we avoid answering the question directly, change the subject, or stall. 

That can be even worse. 

It makes it look like you’re hiding something, aren’t the expert we purport to be, or want them to cough up more fees before we answer what the client believes is a simple question. 

What should we do? 

I don’t know. No, really, it’s one of those things that doesn’t have an easy answer. 

Is it a complex issue? Unsettled law? Unclear fracts? What is your relationship with the client? What do you need to ask them before you can provide a complete and accurate response? How much time is available to answer?

And, is it the type of question you ordinarily get paid to answer?

Clients don’t expect you to know everything. Or tell them everything. But you should tell them something. 

Tell them what you do know, or tell them some of the issues that make it difficult to answer on the spot. And then tell them you need to do some (more) research, ask them (more) questions, or give it some thought.

Or tell them there are issues that are outside the scope of your practice area and you need to consult with (or refer the client to) another lawyer.

Of course you could also just tell them you don’t know or you’re not sure and, say it with me, “you don’t want to guess”.