Learning How to Say: “I Don’t Know.”

Lawyers have to not only address the legal concerns that bring our clients to us, but also address more holistic concerns

Meghan Alderson

University of Tennessee College of Law, Class of 2023

I am a 3L, quickly approaching graduation. I have a summer of bar prep and a new job awaiting me in the fall. I have been in school since I was 5 – going straight from high school to college to law school. But law school is different. I don’t know if that is because it is graduate school or because it is law school specifically. Or maybe it is me? But as I approach the end of 20 years of schooling, I find myself wondering what exactly law school has been trying to teach me. Are the professors teaching me to be risk adverse? To see law and litigation and liability everywhere? If it is, they have succeeded.

On the other hand, it doesn’t always seem like the point of these three years is the law itself but, rather, the thought process behind it. Before this semester, I suspected that a big part of what our law professors were teaching us was how to bullshit. My high school friends and I joked that you couldn’t survive Advanced Placement English without knowing how to bullshit. So, we got good at it. It is a skill that has been useful ever since. Law school was no exception.

But what I discovered this past semester was the importance of saying “I don’t know.” And more importantly, letting it go—being okay with not knowing.

It has been one of the quickest lessons I learned in this last semester of law school, but I think it is one of the most important lessons I have learned in these three years.

In law school classes, we debate and guess and hypothesize. We chat among ourselves as lawyers. But when talking to a client, all of that thinking aloud we would do in class or among ourselves was actually more likely to scare or confuse them. I was so worried that my clients would lose confidence in me for admitting that I did not know something.

I wanted to be able to give clients the answers they needed. I had to realize that it was not about what I wanted or even completely about what they needed. As their lawyer, it is my job to help them by giving them correct information that answers their questions as clearly as possible. One of the most important ways I can make sure I do that is to be honest with my clients if I do not know or if I am not sure, so that I do not scare or confuse them. In order to do that, I have to accept that I do not know everything and that communicating my lack of knowledge to my clients that can be the best way to help them. I know that I can find the answer and get back to them when I can confidently answer their questions correctly and completely, without confusing them with the wrong information.

I have come to understand that is part of what sets the legal field apart from other professions. Lawyers have to not only address the legal concerns that bring our clients to us, but also address more holistic concerns. Maybe it is just the way that my amazing clinic professors have trained me, but I believe addressing these holistic concerns is part of the job. As a lawyer, I must also be a confidant, a support system, a listening ear, and whatever else my client needs me to be. My clients need to feel that I am truly helping them, listening to them, advocating for them. That is a big part of my job as an advocate.

So, at the end of these three years, I can say that law school has taught me something. Hopefully, the things I have learned were the things I was supposed to be learning—the things that my instructors were trying to teach me.

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