They may be the three most difficult words for certain professionals to utter.
The mere temptation to speak them aloud has even been known (among some, it is rumoured), to dredge up sweaty palms, blinding pillars of ego and fortress-thick walls of denial.
I don’t know.
Or if you prefer, I dunno.
Je ne sais pas.
Or or as it is said in ancient legalese, “a comprehensive answer to this most important enquiry is not yet at my immediate fingertips.”
However you phrase it, get used to saying it.
I don’t know.
There are lots of things we are all comfortable not knowing.
What will tomorrow’s weather be? Which leaders should we vote for? Does life as we know it exist elsewhere in the cosmos? Will the Leafs ever host another parade on Bay Street?
We just don’t know. Somehow, we manage to live with that.
And when it involves our professional lives, I’d suggest that comfortably saying those three words is actually in our job descriptions. And at times, our codes of ethics.
This is not something to worry over.
We can’t expect ourselves to know everything on the spot. We can’t possibly be fully up to speed on every section of every statute or every single reported decision that has emerged in the last 24 hours – or 24 years. Our duty of care to our clients surely includes a duty, before providing an opinion, to carefully research and consider all applicable law that will be relevant to whatever riddles we are unraveling.
That will usually take a bit of time, and that is generally not something to be uncomfortable with. Given the ample research and networking tools now available, we can all feel quite confident that good answers will never be very far away.
So, when you don’t know the answer, just say “I don’t know (but I will).”
I would suggest that for new lawyers, in particular, doing so is a survival skill.
Now, I am a realist, and understand that it may a hurdle too high for some to utter those exact three words. In deference to them, I therefore offer my Top Ten* serious ways for lawyers to say “I don’t know” without actually saying “I don’t know:”
- That’s a really good question, and I’d like to take a day or two to review the law before I give you a firm opinion.
- The law has usually been “x” on this, but I’m pretty sure I came across a case recently that went the other way. I will look it up and let you know.
- That’s a very technical question. As a first step, I’d like to consult with a colleague who specializes in this area of the law.
- That question may be one that would be better handled by your accountant. Let’s give her a call to discuss it.
- That question is outside my area of practice. I’d like to arrange a referral for you to speak to a specialist who works regularly in this area.
- That question is likely governed by the [name of statute] Act. Let me look it up and get back to you.
- There’s very good website that addresses this. Can I send you a link?
- That question is now before the Supreme Court of Canada. We won’t really know until the court decides, at some point in the next six months.
- It will be necessary for me to review quite a bit of documentation in order to properly assess this situation. That will take a little time.
- This question is in a gray zone, and I’m not sure if a court has ruled on it recently. Let me see if I can find a case that will give us some guidance on this.
(*to be used only in circumstances where factually applicable)
So that’s today’s tip. You may not know the answer immediately, but you will find it. Just keep your clients in the loop. And take the time you need – to know.