Though it might not be obvious to ordinary citizens who watch TV shows about lawyers like NBC’s The Law Firm, lawyers rarely know the answers to thorny legal issues off the top of their heads. Instead, they have to look up the answers. Or, more often, they turn to the lawyer standing next to them and ask, for example, “Hey, do you know how I can require an Arkansas resident to appear for a deposition in a case pending in California?”
Because new associates, by their nature, do a lot of standing around, it’s often new associates who are asked questions like these by more experienced lawyers. Here’s my tip to these new associates: If you don’t know the answer, admit it. Are you afraid that you’ll be penalized if you take this course? It’s not likely. After all, the lawyer who’s asking you the question doesn’t know the answer either.
After you say "I don't know," you should offer to find out the answer. In my own career, I’ve said “I don’t know” a thousand times, and I’m none the worse for it. Consider the alternative. Many young lawyers in the situation I’m describing feel compelled to make something up—to “wing it,” in the vernacular. I’ll tell you what will happen. First, they’ll look like idiots, either when they first open their mouths or later, when the lawyers on the receiving end of the communication learn they were wrong. Second, the lawyers who asked the question will never ask these new associates another one. Instead, they’ll move on to other associates they can trust.
If all this is too much to remember, simply keep in mind the immortal words of Mark Twain: “It’s better to keep your mouth shut and let people think you are a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”
Related post: Young Associates: How to Set Yourself Apart.