On Answering Questions (Above The Law)

We just finished a (36-day) election campaign here in the United Kingdom.

(I hear that people are announcing their candidacies for some upcoming election over in the United States. But surely that can’t be: There’s no presidential election until November 2016.)

The local campaign got me to thinking about how politicians answer questions. There are, of course, questions that politicians cannot (for political reasons) answer. So the politicians evade; I understand. But even when politicians affirmatively want to answer questions, they’ve seemingly lost that capacity. When asked even a softball question as to which the politician has a perfectly good answer, the politician almost instinctively resorts to endless throat-clearing: “I’m glad you asked that question. As I’ve said many times in the past, and I’ll say here today and continue to say in the future — because I feel very strongly about this issue — this is a subject that demands our attention. . . . ”

Was that a “yes” or a “no,” big fella?

I’ve foamed at the mouth on this subject before. I wrote in The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law about answering questions posed by a judge:

If a judge poses a question to you, there’s one rule: Answer it. Answer it directly, in a single word, if possible. “Yes” or “no” are fine candidates. Do not praise the question (“That’s a good question, Your Honor”) before answering it. Do not sneak in your life’s story (“Funny you should ask. I was discussing that with co-counsel just this morning”) before answering it. Do not give the long form of the answer — which seems persuasive to you, but is a mind-numbing blizzard of legalese to any fair-minded observer — before saying yes or no.

I wrote those words when I worked at a big law firm. I was thinking more recently about answering questions in an in-house environment. (Spoiler alert: My thinking is unchanged. When asked a question, consider answering it. Not “speaking words that come to mind,” but “answering the question.”)

What prompts today’s rant? First, a lawyer was asked to describe to a large group an acquisition he’d recently worked on: “I know you recently worked on an acquisition, Fred. Why don’t you tell the group about it?”

What did he say?

Thanks for asking. This transaction was code-named Project Amethyst. Let me give a big shout-out to Harry, Suzie, and George. They worked tirelessly on this project with me. And we couldn’t have closed this deal without the help of the folks in Singapore and Malaysia. And not just lawyers; the people in business and finance helped out, too. This was a real “one firm – one goal” effort. I was proud to be part of it. And we closed the deal successfully last week. I hope that helps.

It helps — in the sense of this meeting being scheduled to last an hour and us thus being required to fill that time. But it does leave dangling just a couple of things. Like: “What did we buy?” And: “Why did we buy it?” Perhaps those subjects merit a word or two when telling a collection of ignorant people about an acquisition.

Second, I’ve also recently seen daily reports from a trial. The reports got a fairly wide distribution, because many folks were curious about what was happening. The first report provides an example of what the group read:

We had opening statements today. Plaintiff’s attorney utterly ignored the various legal standards and evidence and simply made an emotional appeal, repeating over and over that plaintiff sent the suit papers to defendant and that was enough. By contrast, defendant’s lawyer took the judge succinctly and comprehensively through each legal standard and each material piece of evidence and tied all of this to the numerous bases for judgment in defendant’s favor on all counts. His opening statement was a careful, logical roadmap for the court to rule in favor of defendant.

Quick! What doesn’t this description tell the reader?

Anything.

Like: Who sued whom for what? What are the strongest arguments for plaintiff? Did counsel make them? What are the strongest arguments for the defense? Did counsel make them? How, if at all, was the judge or jury reacting to the arguments? Were there any noteworthy events — gotcha moments, embarrassments, tales worth telling — during the day?

The description of the case provides only the author’s reaction to what happened, without giving the reader a hint of what actually occurred. (If someone who read the report were later asked what happened at the first day of trial, what could that person say? “Our observer thinks we’re ahead.” That’s it; the report contains many words, but what else does it say?)

Look: I know I’m getting more and more crotchety with each passing year. And, given where I started decades ago, that’s saying a mouthful.

But shouldn’t people reflect briefly on what’s been asked before answering a question?

If someone asks a question, what might that person be interested in?

The answer, perhaps?

Mark Herrmann is the Chief Counsel – Litigation and Global Chief Compliance Officer at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at inhouse@abovethelaw.com.