Learning to Say “I Don’t Know”

Being an expert isn’t about knowing all the answers — it’s about knowing where to find them.

How do you respond when a client asks you a question and you have no idea what the answer is?

When I was in law school, I spent a summer interning in an appellate defense office. It was my first experience directly working with legal clients, and I was both excited and terrified.

I was eager to get hands-on experience, but I couldn’t help doubting myself — wondering whether I was in over my head. There was still so much that I didn’t know, and I worried that I’d end up looking like an idiot in front of our clients.

My supervising attorney gave me a piece of advice that calmed my nerves and which I’ve used ever since: When a client asks a question that you don’t know the answer to, simply be honest. Tell them, “I don’t know, but I’ll look that up and get back to you with an answer.”

The Wrong Way to Respond

It can be scary to admit when you don’t know the answer to a client’s question. You worry that it will make you look like less of an expert and that the client may question your ability.

Because of these fears, I think that many of us have a gut feeling that we should fake our way through — give half an answer, an estimate, or our best guess.

This approach never works out in the long run. Most clients can tell exactly when you’re faking it, and you’ll end up losing their trust. Instead of appearing to be an expert, you’ll appear unconfident and confused.

In the worst case, your client might believe you completely, only to have your answer end up dead wrong. Not only will this ruin your credibility, but it could also have serious consequences for both yourself and your client.

If you’re working in certain fields (including the law), faking your way through an answer could even be an ethical or legal violation.

The Power of Saying “I Don’t Know”

The far better solution when you don’t know the answer to a question is to simply be honest.

Admitting when you don’t know the answer to a question might feel like a sign of ignorance, but clients are unlikely to take it that way.

Being an expert in a field isn’t actually about knowing the answer to every question off the top of your head. Even the greatest lawyers in the world don’t know every statute and every case. In other fields as well, the top minds aren’t expected to have every fact memorized.

True expertise lies in understanding your field well enough to know how to find the answers. A good lawyer won’t always be able to give immediate answers, but they will make a point of finding out the answers and following up with their clients.

It’s been years since my summer internship, but I’ve never stopped saying “I don’t know.”

I’ve said it to clients, fellow lawyers, and even to judges. When I started teaching, I started saying it to my students as well.

Not once has it resulted in a loss of confidence.

Instead, I’ve found that when I tell someone “I don’t know,” that person respects my candor and appreciates when I follow through with my promise to research the question.

Telling a client that you’ll thoroughly research their questions isn’t a sign of your ignorance, it’s a sign of your respect for the client. You are demonstrating your willingness to devote time to make sure you answer all of their questions fully and accurately.

Always Follow Up

The most important part of admitting that you don’t know the answer to a question is to follow up on it afterward.

When you tell a client “I don’t know,” make sure to also tell them that you’ll find the answer, and when you’ll do so.

For urgent questions, offer to email or call them later that day. For less important issues, you can simply tell them that you’ll have an answer next time you meet.

Sometimes, I’ve even told clients exactly how I’ll research a question. For example, “I don’t know the fee for that off the top of my head, but I’ll check the relevant statute this afternoon and send you an email.”

Generally speaking, the more candid you are with your clients, the better.

Once you tell a client that you’ll find an answer, make sure that you do, and that you relay that answer to them in the timeframe that you promised. If for some reason you can’t, keep the client updated so that they won’t feel like you’ve forgotten them.

Part of becoming an expert is learning to embrace the phrase “I don’t know.”

Faking your way through answers will ruin your client’s confidence in you. A candid “I don’t know” will build their trust.

Written by

I’m a lawyer and teacher from North Carolina. I write about sobriety, mental health, running, and more.

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