Clients usually pick lawyers who have an expansive understanding of the law so that their counsel will be able to draw from a solid background when dealing with a given legal issue. Accordingly, lawyers might feel pressured to answer all of the questions posed by a client with a firm response so they can demonstrate a solid understanding of a legal matter. However, the law is expansive, and lawyers can hardly be expected to know everything about everything. Attorneys should be more willing to tell clients when they need to conduct more research, or if they do not know about a given legal issue, to set reasonable expectations and build a greater sense of trust with clients.
A while back, I was approached by a client who wanted to form a business. The business seemed like a cool idea, and I was tasked with drafting the formation documents and giving him advice about the government agencies with which he needed to file paperwork. At one point, my client also asked if the business could be used to impact his immigration status. I am by no means an immigration lawyer, although I picked up a few things about immigration law over the years since this was at the periphery of a few matters I handled in the past.
My initial instinct was to tell the client what I knew about immigration law and offer an opinion on his question. This would make me seem helpful and could have deepened the connection I had with the client. However, on second thought, I decided to just refer the client to a trusted immigration lawyer I routinely refer work to. The client’s question was a little more complex than the run-of-the-mill immigration law questions I have answered in the past, and I wanted to make sure that the client got the best information possible. The client seemed appreciative of the referral, and from what I heard, the immigration lawyer gave my client solid advice.
Another time, I was representing a business that was shuttered due to tough times they experienced in recent years. Even though the business was closed, they were facing a lawsuit, and the litigation was getting ugly. The business and each of the principals could have been on the hook for a significant recovery if the litigation went the distance. At one point, my clients began asking me questions about bankruptcy. I do not handle bankruptcy matters, but bankruptcy has been involved in a number of my cases over the years. I initially wanted to answer my client’s questions myself.
However, I ended up referring the matter to a bankruptcy lawyer I know. I just did not know the answers to many of my clients’ questions, such as the price for a bankruptcy and how long the process might take, and I knew that these would be easy questions for my colleague to answer. Plus, my colleague gave these clients a much better understanding of liabilities they could avoid in bankruptcy and liabilities they might not avoid even after they declared bankruptcy. I do not think that my clients ever declared bankruptcy, but knowing another experienced lawyer who could help my clients made me look good in front of my clients.
I also routinely have to answer questions about family law matters during the course of representations. This usually breaks down into discussions over premarital agreements, child custody matters, and divorce proceedings. Now, I took the bar exam back when it actually covered state law, so I know the bare minimum about family law, but I could by no means handle matters on my own without assistance. However, sometimes I might answer some of the very basic questions about family law that I get from clients.
Nevertheless, I almost always refer family law matters to other attorneys and do not answer all but the simplest family law questions posed by clients. I have different family law lawyers that I refer clients to in each of the jurisdictions in which I practice, and clients seem to really like that I can be relied upon to refer solid professionals who can help them with their family law matters. I make sure to stay in my lane, and because of this, my clients get the benefit of a lawyer who knows more about the legal issues surrounding their matter, and I can look like a hero who set my clients up with the perfect professional for them.
All told, it might be difficult for lawyers to refuse to answer questions by clients, since many lawyers hold themselves out as generalists, and lawyers want to be able to satisfy all of the needs of a client. However, lawyers shouldn’t be afraid to tell clients that they don’t know a given answer and should more often refer clients to legal professionals who might be able to better assist clients with a given legal issue.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.