Responding to Questions from the Boss from Hell… When You Don’t Actually Know the Answer


Let me tell you the story about a law firm associate who missed chance after chance to become the go-to lawyer for one of the firm’s top partners. And how a different attorney seized that chance.

When the partner asked this associate a question he didn’t know the answer to, he answered, “I don’t know.” Invariably, the partner went ballistic. Launching into a tirade loud enough for the entire hallway to hear, he yelled, “What the %@*! do I pay you for?”

This pattern went on for some two years.

I won’t debate whether the partner was acting like a jerk. He was. I won’t argue his behavior was somehow excusable, acceptable, or an inevitable part of the workplace. It wasn’t.

However, I'd like to offer a different perceptive for the associate to consider. He could have chosen to be part of the partner’s solution. Instead, he chose to be part of the partner’s problem.

This is not "blame the victim." However, I do mean to focus on the side of this transaction the associate had the most control over—himself. He couldn’t control the partner’s appalling behavior, but he could control his own response to it. And he had more influence over that partner than either he or the partner realized.

For two years, this associate answered the partner’s questions with “I don’t know.” Each time, those specific words triggered a specific response from the partner. This was a distinct and obvious pattern, but one the associate couldn’t figure out how to avoid.

To think about how the associate could have influenced the pattern, let’s think about what was going on in the partner’s mind. He could be rude and tyrannical. He was also being pressured by clients to produce cost-effective, business savvy results in multimillion-dollar disputes where the future of the business was a stake. He was frustrated and looking for a solution. He went to the associate for an answer that would help him respond to the client’s concerns. Rather than getting the answers he needed, he got an “I don’t know” from the associate who was supposed to managing the day-to-day of these cases and implementing his litigation strategies. So he boiled over.

What might the associate have done to be part of the partner’s solution rather than part of his problem?

First, he should have stopped saying the trigger phrase. At first glance, “I don’t know” seems like a reasonable response. The associate used this phrase because he truly didn’t know the answer and didn’t want to pretend that he did (bosses tend to hate it when their reports pretend to know more than they do). However, for this partner, those were trigger words. Why? One of the problems with “I don’t know” is that it’s used as an end-point of interest, accountability, and action. It should be a starting point.

While the associate knew those were triggers words, he didn’t come up with an alternative that would have conveyed the same honest uncertainty while avoiding the trigger. He didn’t demonstrate intent to act. He didn’t show initiative. He didn’t show he was organized or on top of the case. He left the partner’s problems in the same condition in which those problems came to him—unsolved and, worse, without potential solutions in sight. The result was the partner questioned his value in the workplace and even his basic competence.

In other words, the associate passed up the opportunity to inspire the partner’s confidence, to prove to the partner that he was on top of his caseload, and to establish a reputation as a trusted and reliable problem-solver.

Rather than just “I don’t know,” the associate might have said (as I suggested that he say): “I’m not sure off the top of my head, and I don’t want to give you a wrong answer. I have the file in my office, so let me go pull the information for you. I’ll be back in five minutes.”

That’s the answer the other associate gave. At times, the partner took her up on her offer for the information. Other times, the partner told her, “Meh, it’s not that important. Just check when you get a chance.”

And that’s the story of how I became the go-to attorney rather than my colleague.