Summer students have just started at my firm. One of the things that we emphasize in training is that if they don’t understand what they have been asked to do, they need to go back to the lawyer and clarify the question. While it may be embarrassing to have to go back and ask, it’s far better than discovering that they’ve researched the wrong thing.
This principle doesn’t just apply to students. Library staff get asked questions that need to be clarified or elaborated on. Sometimes the person asking the question knows so much about the area, they assume everyone else does. Sometimes the problem is that the question is phrased too generally, so the resources we come up with aren’t relevant or specific enough. Sometimes the question is being asked by a student based on a question they have been asked by a lawyer, and crucial elements have been lost in translation. And sometimes the reason that we don’t understand the question is because the person who is asking the question doesn’t either. In those situations the process of clarifying the question often ends up answering the original question.