Answer THE Question

By: Scott McEachern

As a legal services provider, a commonly difficult and troublesome challenge is dealing with a client that can't/won't answer a direct question with a direct answer. 

Often, very early on in the relationship with the client, I will point out two key reasons to provide a 'direct' answer:

  1. The saving of money as services are charged for time spent and every minute counts; but unfortunately, clients often tell a 'story' in answer to what was a "yes" or "no" question; and

  2. The training of the client to answer only the question asked; because later, if the matter goes to trial, the client can quickly derail a good case by trying to tell a 'story' instead of brief answers.

As an example, during a recent trial, I had a series of questions ready to ask my client. The client was provided the questions days in advance so as to be prepared on what to expect. Just minutes before the client took the stand and was sworn in to testify, the client was reminded to carefully answer only the question as will be asked. The first question, after asking the judge permission to show the client/witness a document was, "Are you familiar with this document?" The expected answer was "yes" but instead, the answer given was a nearly 20 minute explanation of what the document was, how the document came to be, who signed the document, who was there when the document was signed, and why the client/witness felt that the document was unfair.

While the client/witness rambled on and on, I actually stood there, biting my lip in a highly exaggerated manner hoping the client/witness would see this as a reminder to shut up. Unfortunately, the client/witness just kept going and going and going, completely derailing the series of planned questions.  While able to recover and save the case, the client/witness made the matter much more challenging than necessary. 

It is for 'screening out' potentially troublesome clients that many lawyers and paralegals will ask close ended questions during an initial client interview. Those potential clients that are unable to answer direct questions with direct answers are often told, "Sorry, I'm unable to help you. Try calling someone else!"  The potential client then moves on and tries to find another lawyer or paralegal that will listen (again to a long and rambling story).  The potential client may even eventually comes to think that all these lawyers and paralegals misunderstand the case or that it is a losing case - the potential client fails to recognize that it is the potential client 'shooting himself in the foot during initial interviews' that is causing so many lawyers or paralegals to turn the potential client away.   

So, when you need legal help, the 'tip' to remember here is to keep in mind that lawyers and/or paralegals prefer working with clients that can answer questions with short and digestible answers rather than with long irrelevant and confusing stories. Remember, only you lived and breathed the story - and you likely have only one legal matter to keep in mind whereas your legal practitioner is handling dozens of cases.  Legal practitioners are trained and skilled at ensuring the truth and story gets told - you don't need to tell the story in one breath!  Help your lawyer or paralegal to help you!