Often when confronted with a particular set of facts and circumstances unique to a client’s situation, I am heard to say, “Well, off the top of my head, I think most likely the answer is _____, but I’d need to research the issue before providing an opinion.” At which point, Clients sometimes ask, “But don’t you know the law?”
It’s absolutely true. Lawyers spend three years in law school, study for, take, and pass the Bar Exam, then go into the practice of law.
There are definitely common, core concepts which all lawyers are taught (contracts, tort law [think: personal injury stuff], real estate, evidence, and so on) as a matter of curriculum in law school. Sort of like we are all taught how to read, write, add, and subtract in grammar school. But law school is not the end of learning for lawyers – it’s only a starting point.
The Law Is Not a Static Entity
It changes and evolves constantly, sometimes for the better, and sometimes developments just make already muddy waters more so. While core concepts we all learned in law school remain, the nuances which define those core concepts are constantly evolving. Then, there are the governmental legislators who enact brand new laws and regulations which can create a whole new set of questions and problems.
There are also judicial opinions which overturn or restrict a law on the books – for example, California’s strict gun control laws have often been curtailed or completely struck down by appellate courts.
Knowledge of the Law
I often tell clients that a lawyer’s knowledge of the law is a bit like your knowing the streets of your neighborhood and surrounding areas. The closer you are to your home base, the better you know the streets and how they intersect and the various ways to get from point A to point B. Most likely, you are also familiar with most of the streets and areas in your city, too, but then again, it depends on how big your city is: is it a small town like Danville, California, or a larger city like San Francisco?
I know how to get from my house to the grocery store, post office, gas station, and the like – places where I regularly go. But when it comes to finding a destination in a nearby city where I do not drive as frequently, or a destination to where I have never travelled before, I sometimes need to consult my online map app to help me arrive at where I want to go.
Similarly, when I am dealing with a legal issue that I encounter frequently, I can pretty much tell you what my opinion is. But when it comes to more off-the-beaten path questions, or issues which I do not encounter as frequently, I need to consult my map app, which in my profession is legal research. I may have a general idea of what the response is, which is what I will often say is my “off the top of my head answer”, but in order to be as accurate as I can be, I need to do some research to find those nuances – the back streets and alleyways – before providing an opinion.
After all, if you consulted your attorney, you would want to get the most accurate answer to your question as may be possible, not just a generality, right?