When Questions Are More Important Than Answers

“Asking the right questions takes as much skill as giving the right answers.” – Robert Half

Lawyers are taught to be experts; having the right answer is a fundamental part of our role. But what did we learn about asking the right questions?

I don’t recall learning very much in law school about how to ask good questions. We learned about the difference between closed, open and leading questions. Closed questions required a yes/no answer; leading questions suggested the (desired) answer.

The clear implication was to avoid the truly “open” questions. In fact, we were taught never to ask a question to which we didn’t know the answer. I realize now how limiting that approach was because:

  • It focused almost entirely on the court process (direct and cross examination practice) and didn’t take into account wider legal practice; and
  • It assumed that every question was intended to be strategically directed to a particular legal issue or goal (even though the client’s problem usually consisted of a combination of legal and non-legal concerns).

Looking back, I see that this approach was likely consistent with our profession’s preference for certainty rather than uncertainty, simplicity rather than complexity, decisiveness rather than reflection and a focus on the past (precedent) rather than the future.

But looking forward, shouldn’t we be using all the tools we can (including powerful questions) to engage effectively with our increasingly complex environment? Justice system reform efforts definitely require an affinity for asking generative, open questions requiring deep thought. In a different context, to what extent should we be relating differently to our clients? We know that our clients’ problems are not just legal – even our corporate clients have a multitude of interests and goals that go beyond legal analysis alone. Good client service includes exploring a wider range of needs. To do this we need broader kinds of questions that are designed to elicit deeper needs, motivations, and goals.

Einstein famously said: “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask… for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

In his ground-breaking new book, Law is a Buyer’s Market – Building a Client-First Law Firm, Jordan Furlong describes how “the priorities of the buyer are now emerging as the dominant force in the legal market.” He recommends that each law firm pivot to ensure it is focused on client needs (rather than lawyer or firm needs) and, to do that, to develop a “Client Strategy”. At page 132 he lays out the components of an effective Client Strategy: client intelligence; the client experience; and results. Client intelligence means getting to know the client, the client’s environment and the client’s goals.

How does the firm find this out? By asking the client powerful questions. And, it means going further and also asking questions about the particular matter at hand:

“What does it (the client) hope to accomplish or avoid with these services? Where do they fit within the client’s growth and risk profiles and long term objectives? What priority does the client place on them? These are examples of questions that look behind the request to find the reason – the hole in the client’s board. These are questions that should be asked and answered during the initial retainer conversation with the client for this matter.”

Mediation training gave me my first glimpse into this kind of questioning – the goal was to uncover each party’s underlying interests and motivations in order to identify common ground and to help the parties fashion a sustainable meaningful resolution. (It is not all about the money!) It immediately felt freeing – it opened new opportunities to support the parties to resolve their conflict and also to meet their real needs.

Closed questions may have a place in the court process. However, in order to serve our clients well we need to engage in a different type of inquiry in order to find out what really matters.

One last lovely quote:

“Of course one cannot simply ask question after question, without giving any thought to answers. Such a method seems insincere in the question-asking. But rather questions lead naturally to a consideration of answers, which lead to more questions, which lead to more answers, which lead to more questions. The two move back and forth, like a lumberjack’s saw at an old oak tree, sawing through the rings with each back and forth motion until you reach the core.”Tom Johnson, emphasis added.


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