Understanding the real problem you are trying to solve

The concept of understanding the problem you are trying to solve may be one of the most important keys to being an effective lawyer.  To wit, this blog has a number of posts that cover this issue in the context of providing advice for meeting expectations of law firm partners as does the book Making Partner.

The concept is so important, however, and it comes up so frequently, that it deserves its own post.  Rigorous research is important as is strong writing but as a preliminary matter, a good lawyer must understand the question he or she is being asked to answer.  How can one assess the merits of the conclusion reached and advice to be provided without a clear understanding of the actual issue to be resolved?  It does not seem possible.

So, here are two steps to consider taking for every project to help ensure you are solving the correct question.

1.) Confirm the moving parts upfront.  You may do some of this confirming on your own time (i.e., without the assignor of the       project.)

  • What is the legal issues(s)/question(s)/problem?
  • What are the facts needed to evaluate the legal issues?
  • What are the facts you have?
  • Is it possible to get more facts?
  • What will likely remain unknown?
  • What specifically is being asked of you? (For example, are you being asked to answer a subset of the main question?)
  • What is the universe of known possible outcomes?

2.) Adjust the mission where necessary

  • It is almost always necessary to tweak the project in some way once you get in weeds and confirm whether the original question is the right or only question to be answered.
  • Be open to the possibility that the initial question may be one in a series of questions needed to be answered to get to the bottom of the issue.
  • Be careful not to spend too much time answering the question asked without carefully considered whether it is the right question.
  • Recognize that there is value in identifying the correct question or question(s) to be asked even if you do not have answers (or need more facts to answer, etc.).
  • Keep dialogue going with project assignor to update on progress and confirm you are on the right track (especially if different from the track initially started).

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