Why Cant A Lawyer Just Answer The Question

January 15, 2016


Clients and friends have asked me many of the same questions over the course of my career. This is one in an ongoing series of “lawyer questions and answers”. Hopefully, this will be useful to you, or at least interesting.
A: Oh, I hate this one, but I’ll give it a try.
It seems as though when you ask an attorney a simple question, he will more often than not answer “Well, it depends”. This drives people nuts, and perhaps understandably so. Why can’t you just ask a lawyer a simple question, and get a simple answer?
From the beginning of law school, we lawyers are trained to consider any given question from every aspect and perspective. We are trained to consider all the facts and factors which may influence the outcome of the question, weight each one, mix the whole thing together, apply the law, common sense and wisdom, and come out with an answer which is most probably correct. Tweaking any one of these facts or factors will influence the outcome of the answer to the question. The lawyer therefore often gives the answer “It depends” because indeed it does. This sounds like mumbo-jumbo. What am I talking about?
Let me try to answer by straightforward example.
Mrs. Smith is sitting in her car stopped when she is rear-ended by Mr. Jones who has been drinking. She hits her chin on the steering wheel and fractures her jaw. She loses five weeks from her job where she makes $1,000 per week, and her car is destroyed which is worth $10,000. Question: What is the case worth? Answer: Well, fault for the accident seems clear because she was rear-ended by Mr. Jones who was drinking. She has a wage loss of $5,000, property damage to her car of $10,000, and the pain and suffering of fracturing her jaw adds another $15,000. So the case should be worth around $30,000. (In other words that is what a jury might be expected to award).
So, if a lawyer is presented with the above case, he should be able to give a straightforward answer as to its value right? Well, now let’s tweak some of the facts. Each of these tweaks will increase or decrease the valuation of the case.
-Mr. Jones had been drinking but he was not legally drunk, or

-Mrs. Smith’s car was stopped in the roadway because she dropped her cell phone and stopped short causing Mr. Jones to rear-end her, or

-Mr. Jones makes a lovely witness and the jury will like him (or he makes a horrible witness, and the jury will hate him), or

-Mrs. Smith had been drinking too and was legally drunk, or

-The accident occurred in heavy fog when visibility for everyone wasterrible, or

-Mrs. Smith’s jaw was wired shut, and she was a professional operasinger and her weekly income varied from $30-$40,000 per week, or

-Mrs. Smith’s jaw never recovered and she was never able to open itmore than a little, but she had had two prior similar injuries to her jaw,or

-Mr. Jones was known in the community as the town drunk, or

-The accident occurred in a very conservative region where jurors think that all injured plaintiffs are fakers who are seeking free money, or

-the accident occurred in the region where jurors are known tosympathize with injured people.

Now apply some of the legal questions pertinent to these facts. Should the jury consider Mr. Jones drinking even though he was not legally drunk? What about Mrs. Smith’s drinking? She was legally drunk…but she was stopped so what did her drunkenness have to do with it? Does the foggy visibility exonerate anyone? Does Mr. Jones reputation as the town drunk get submitted to the jury?
What, therefore is the actual valuation of the this case? As you can see, the correct, legitimate answer becomes “Well, it depends.” Changing any one of these facts changes the outcome of the answer.
On my first day of law school, one of my professors said to the class “If you are going to become a lawyer, you have to have a high tolerance for ambiguity.” In other words, a lawyer has to come up with good solid evaluations and answers in the face of situations which are fluid, changing, and ambiguous. That is his training, and that is what he does throughout his career. Are his answers always right?
Well, it depends.

Jack Hoyt, Esq.

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