By Attorney Erin Duncan: There is no such thing as a “quick question” when it comes to the law. Any attorney reading this has just sat back, nodded his or her head in the affirmative, exhaled an inner or audible “uh huh…” and cracked at least a slight smile. That is because we all see this pop up in our email on a pretty regular basis — the subject line merely says “Quick question” or informally, “Hey, I just have a quick question.”
To set the stage for those of you who have not attended, the real purpose of law school is to learn how to learn, research and interpret the law – there is no way to learn all of the law and not even a fraction in three years of intense study. A new law student quickly learns that “the law” on any particular issue starts at a broad point – for the purposes of family law and those reading this, generally the Florida Statutes. The statute lays out the general law on any given subject: Divorce issues are found in Chapter 61; Paternity issues are found in 742; Domestic Violence issues are found in Chapter 741; Custody by Extended Family Member issues are found in Chapter 751, etc. If one were to read any portion of any of these statutes, it is quickly apparent that the reader needs additional information to determine what the statute actually means and to ascertain how it applies to the reader. There are definitions sections that help with the terminology, but no examples or application of facts.
The entirety of an attorney’s training and education culminates in the ability to use the broad law as a starting point (the Florida Statutes in my example above) to research the law as it actually applies to the person inquiring – meaning applying the multitude of cases involving that issue that have come before (called case law). Each case that is heard by the appellate court (in turn becoming case law to be followed in the future) has a unique set of facts and circumstances, likely heard before a different panel of judges, and therefore each has a different outcome. So a similar set of facts may receive a different ruling even if it is before the same judge. Case law provides consistency (and precedent) that is followed by future judges, but again, if the facts are different, the outcome may be as well.
So, when a client, or prospective client, or even a past client, sends an email or starts a sentence with the words “quick question,” we as attorneys know there is no such thing. We also know that when we start to respond, the person asking is likely to be disappointed or frustrated that the response will not be a “quick answer.” As such, should you find yourself asking your attorney a “quick question,” you will likely get the following response: “That depends.”
The best practice in communication with your attorney is think about all of your questions on any given topic write them down or email them to the attorney altogether. Likely, the attorney is having to do some research anyway, so having all of the facts and issues at one is most helpful. Finally, approach your requests for information with the understand that we don’t have all of the answers to everything all of the time. It is the nature of the profession and if we couldn’t argue both sides of an issue, well then, we wouldn’t be very good at our jobs.