Somebody once asked me the origin of a company and when it was established, and I did not have the answer. When I was done with the conversation, I went to research and got the information. While doing that, I got other details about the company, I realized it was a pioneer in its sector and was responsible for certain key inventions and legislation. When I was done, I felt refreshed but there was a nagging question in my mind, “how come I never asked those questions”? I had known about the company for as long as I have been a professional, but I had not thought to check out their history or additional information about them.
Have you worn these shoes before? I am sure you have! You go for a meeting and someone asks a question about a transaction you are on and you are wondering how come I never asked that? How come this never crossed my mind? For some of us, we are almost outplayed in our own transactions sometimes by other members of our team who seem to know questions that never cross our minds.
It is often said that the quality of our questions determines the quality of the answers we will receive. It is true. The question then is, how can we improve the quality of our questions or better put, what makes us ask better questions?
The answer is curiosity or more plainly put, hunger. As lawyers, we must be hungry for knowledge. We must seek to understand and earnestly search to know. We are taught to use precedents, but this has impacted on the capacity to fact find and the quality of our research.
Before you make allusions to privity of contract in a memo to a client, do you understand the reasoning behind it and related concepts? Before you engage with a company, have you mastered their constitutional documents and the general business information about the sector? Before you begin to join organisations, do you care to check their history and key persons involved in the development of the organisation? Are you interested in understanding your market better?
As lawyers, we are often taught to answer questions. I have since learnt that lawyers who are the best at answering questions are often better at asking questions. In fact, the secret to their dexterity is in their ability to ask the right questions.
If ever you have asked how come your senior knew to ask a client a strategic question, just know that it is not just because of experience, the person has learnt the art of asking better questions.
As lawyers, we must maintain a high curiosity quotient. We must be hungry to understand the confluence of issues and how they impact problems we are trying to solve. Do not swallow things lock and barrel. Check things out, query. The art of querying matters is an essential skill that must be honed.
You may have identified this as a problem and you are asking how to improve your curiosity quotient, let me share some tips with you:
Set learning goals: The same way you have performance goals at work, you need to set learning goals. These may be based on areas of law in which you work or broad business issues impacting your client. The learning is more useful where it is relevant to ongoing work or skills which you are trying to build. Define these learning goals and measure them by putting them to test from time to time.
Take on more challenging work: It is easy to hide in the shadows as a young lawyer and rely on the skill of seniors in the delivery of work. This must not linger. As you count up on the time, your skill quotient must be equally measured, you must tell when your basic skills become advanced and this will only happen if you undertake challenging work i.e. tasks which are outside your comfort zone.
Intellectual humility: No question is stupid to the learner. There is little self-consciousness when it comes to learning. Be humble enough to listen and ask for information about things you do not know or are not familiar with. The world is a knowledge bank and as you interact, pick the lessons.
Lastly, journal your lessons and learnings. This is a skill I wish I had adhered to the moment I started my career. It is such a secret weapon. The more you journal, the more of a master you will be. It also helps you track the record of your growth and query the stages of your career with better data and more intelligently.
Before you continue the rote work of answering client’s questions, ask yourself if you are asking the right questions or better still if you are learning and then take a second to pick up a new lesson.
The call to lawyering is a call to learning and, in this case, curiosity will not kill the cat.
OYEYEMI ADERIBIGBE is a Senior Associate at Templars. She is also the current Vice-Chairman of the Young Lawyers’ Forum of the Nigerian Bar Association -Section on Business Law and the Young Lawyers’ Committee Liaison Officer of the African Regional Forum of the International Bar Association.