Friday, September 12, 2014

The Long Answer

I think I need to find a new way to answer legal questions that are posed to me verbally. Usually my approach is to give the two second, cut to the chase answer followed by the back-story: it's the journalistic approach. The problem with that approach is that approximately 50% of people treat my answers the way they treat news articles. They stop listening at the third paragraph. I'm going to start framing my answers more like a history book, opening up by telling a story that people will get hooked into and interested in, and not providing the quick answer until the end. Because it's really important to hear the long answer.

What is the quick answer? The quick answer is often yes or no; it is often, "Yes, the regulations permit it," or "There's a memo on that." It's often the type of answer you could get from a Google search. It is expedient, and may be all that is needed to push the client file to the side of the desk and get on to the next case.

What is the long answer? The long answer is the history of an idea. It plunges down to where the concept entered legal thinking, and traces its explication through various agencies and case law, through memos and administrations and wrong turns, errors and clarifications. Knowing the long answer is like walking into a small world in which you can move around and animate things. It gives context and depth to your analysis. And it is absolutely prerequisite to applying the law to a person's life.

It's not good enough to only know the quick answer-- not for an attorney and not for a client either. Even though it will produce the right result 9 times out of 10, without full understanding, it may do so for the wrong reason. And in that 1 case out of 10, the quick and apparently correct answer will be absolutely wrong. It's never right to be right without understanding why.

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