How to Cover Up Your Ignorance

Sometimes clients ask tough questions. Sometimes you won’t know the answer. When the question is tough and you don’t know the answer, it isn’t always easy to say “I don’t know.”

You feel okay about not knowing when they ask something hard. They can’t realistically expect you to know everything.

However, it gets harder when the question is easy. It seems like we should know the answer if it’s an easy question. But we can’t always know. We forget and we confuse things, and sometimes the easy questions aren’t all that easy.

So what do you do? What do you say when you feel like you should know but you don’t?

Here are some options:

1. You could go with “I don’t know but I’ll find out for you.” I used that one once at a seminar for people thinking about divorce. A woman had asked a question and I didn’t have a clue what the answer might be. I said, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out for you.” She blurted out in front of the crowd, “You mean to say you’re a lawyer and you don’t even know the law.”

2. I love this one, which an early mentor taught me: “That’s a gray area of the law.” You can use that one for just about anything, and you’ll always seem to know what you’re talking about. I’ve used this one on many occasions and it has always served me well.

3. Another option is the “one hand—other hand” approach. For every legal question, there are always two sides. You can pontificate about the opposing viewpoint when you aren’t sure which viewpoint ultimately wins the day. You’ll rarely find a legal question to which the answer doesn’t involve both yes and no.

4. Finally, I like the answer-a-question-with-a-question approach. They ask something, and you follow up with a question about what they asked. Frequently, I find that this redirects the conversation to things that actually matter and I’m not required to answer the question to which I didn’t know the answer. Try it; you’ll like it.

Ultimately, I think the best answer is always the “I don’t know, but I’ll get back to you” approach. People want the right answer. Generally, they don’t expect us to know everything off the top of our head. The pressure we feel when we don’t know is largely imagined by us and not projected by the client.

Tell clients that you’ll figure it out. Make it clear that you care about their problem. They’ll give you the time you need to give them the answer that they need. In the end, they’ll respect you and you’ll know that you gave them the information necessary to solve their problem.

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