We all know the common trope about how lawyers talk too much. Whether that is true or not, this tendency does not serve you well as in-house counsel. Instead, I have found that asking questions is more helpful. Certainly, the questions you ask as in-house counsel will depend on the circumstances, but here are a few general questions that may help.
What’s your goal? After clients provide me the background on any given situation and ask their question, I like to know what they want to happen, what they are trying to achieve, or what they want to do. While this may seem obvious, I have seen firsthand how lawyers jump into analysis or providing an answer before this is discussed. Expanding this concept a bit further, I also like to know the reason for the client’s goal — what’s the why behind what they are trying to accomplish. I find that the context helps me better understand where they are coming from and how I can help, perhaps even beyond the original ask.
Have you considered? Instead of saying no outright or providing an answer that my client may not like, I like to use this “have you considered” question to help my clients think beyond the specific solution they are asking for. It’s a way to introduce a new perspective, another way of looking at the problem. It is also a way to introduce stakeholders for them to consult. Examples include “have we considered an alternative vendor with stronger cybersecurity protocols” or “have we considered consulting with compliance?”
Can you help me understand? Sometimes, clients can be intimidated by “legal” and peppering them with a lot of questions doesn’t necessarily help. The questions can be perceived as second-guessing or can land negatively. Which is why I sometimes use “can you help me understand” when I’m trying to get more information. It can look like, “can you help me understand the current process?” Note that something like “can you help me understand why no one called legal” is not an effective use of this question.
What do you think? After I share my initial thoughts or advice and explain why, I like to invite collaboration and immediate feedback from clients by asking for questions, comments, or concerns using the simple “what do you think?” If it’s a newer client, I like to reiterate our partnership when I ask for their thoughts, and if there is no “black or white answer,” I like to emphasize that they are integral to our navigation of the gray to do what’s best for the company.
While asking questions like these is not a new concept to being effective counsel, it can be difficult to remember to do so. From personal experience, it is all too easy to jump from call to call or meeting to meeting and “put out fires” with “what do you need?” and “here’s what to do.” With these few questions, hopefully you can help build relationships while also problem-solving.
Meyling “Mey” Ly Ortiz is in-house at Toyota Motor North America. Her passions include mentoring, championing belonging, and a personal blog: TheMeybe.com. At home, you can find her doing her best to be a “fun” mom to a toddler and preschooler and chasing her best self on her Peloton. You can follow her on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/meybe/). And you knew this was coming: her opinions are hers alone.