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“It Depends” – Lawyer Answer or Lawyer Dodge?

Lawyers are not known for giving definitive answers. The old joke is that if you ask a lawyer anything, the answer is always the same: It depends. As is often the case, there is truth in humor.

Obviously, this sort of response often frustrates clients. People want definitive answers. That’s what they pay us for, right? Actually, no. Any lawsuit involves many variables, many of which are not easily quantified. Any case is looking at a possible trial of the case. Trials, whether by a jury or judge, are not wholly predictable. Good lawyers try to evaluate all the factors and make reasoned judgment calls. It’s not easy. It requires careful analysis, but it’s also where experience comes into play. Lawyer judgment comes not only from education, it’s also a function of learning from experience. We can project likely outcomes – odds, if you will – but guarantees are not part of the equation. Hence, it depends.

A lawyer who gives easy answers or guarantees is probably not being straight with their clients – and that is not good. As frustrating as it can be, clients need lawyers who will be honest with them, even if the information is not necessarily what the client wants to hear.

On the other hand, lawyers have a reputation for being unnecessarily obtuse – and that reputation is not undeserved. While we rarely offer guarantees, we do owe our clients informed opinions. Providing projections which tell them nothing is useless. It’s often easy to hide behind the stock response of “it depends” and that produces quite legitimate client distaste.

For many years I was a defense lawyer. Part of that business is giving the insurance companies an analysis of the case. I was taught early on that you had to give a real opinion. When I had young lawyers working for me, I tried to enforce the same standard. Stating that a case is “50-50” tells you nothing. Saying that damages could be huge or nominal is likewise pointless. You are not providing the advice and information that clients need to make decisions.

Whether you are on the plaintiff or defense side, clients deserve reasoned case evaluations. Sometimes that means you can’t be very definitive. You have to be willing to explain to a client why that is the case, and those discussions can be tough. Lawyers cannot, however, wash their hands of making judgment calls by hiding behind a veneer of complexity.

The bottom line is that lawyers always be honest with their clients. Honesty includes providing real opinions. Clients deserve it.


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