The Rookie Lawyer
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The art of asking good questions is an essential part of any law student's skill set. As a student, you want to make sure you ask insightful questions in class, to delve deeper into the material and make sure you understand its every nook and cranny. As a prospective solicitor or trainee, you want to ask standout questions during a job interview or firm open day to showcase your interest in the firm. And, as a qualified solicitor, you want to know the right questions to ask your client to elicit the relevant responses from them in relation to a particular case.
As a current legal student as well as an aspiring solicitor, I've been starting to think more deeply about the mechanisms of conversation recently. What kind of questions make a prospective solicitor stand out? How do you ask the 'right' questions – is there any such thing as 'right' and 'wrong' questions?
Upon researching for this blog post, I realised that there are a ton of articles online providing lists of thoughtful and insightful questions you can ask during a job interview. None of them, however, talk about what makes those questions – or, indeed, their speaker – insightful.
To fill that gap, this article was born. Over the next few paragraphs, we'll be exploring the question of questions:
Everywhere I looked, it seemed that planning and purpose formed the common denominators of every good, memorable question. So, when you're preparing for an event – be it an open day, an interview, or even a class – research the subject and jot down your questions and uncertainties in advance. Nothing is stronger than showing you're thoroughly prepared for a conversation.
Planning also takes care of another strong asset of questioning – specificity. By researching and planning your questions in advance, you know how to narrow them down to a specific topic of your interest: showcasing the depth of your research to the listener, alongside the extent of your interest.
To establish this, it's worth beginning your research by understanding where you're coming from – in other words, your purpose. Know your reasons and you'll know your questions. What kind of response are you hoping to elicit? What kind of information are you seeking to gain (eg, data or a personal opinion? Confirmation or insight? Short answer or detailed elaboration?)? And, with all that in mind, what's the best way to frame your question so as to receive precisely what you're looking for?
Of course, you don't want to ask questions just for the sake of asking them – asking questions is not just something you tick off your list. If you care about asking good questions enough to read this article, chances are you care about the subject about which you're asking – or, at the very least, were intrigued enough to click this article. This showcases an equally significant quality of a good asker: curiosity. When you're doing your research, take a moment to think about what details matter to you – and which of them might be missing from your research. For instance, if you're researching a firm for an open day and you can't find much on their website about firm culture and social opportunities, the open day is a great chance to both observe and immerse yourself in the culture and ask whatever questions you have left. As always, the more specific your curiosity, the better quality answer you'll get, and the more satisfied with the conversation you'll likely be.
A good general tip for this is framing your questions as 'how' and 'why' questions (though it's important to remember this is not a hard and fast rule). The aim of asking questions is to understand as deeply and as much as possible: you want to cover all motives, reasons, functions – to fully understand not only what something is, but why it is the way it is – so you know how to proceed from there.
Another good tip is to make use of follow-up questions. One of the core qualities of a good solicitor is detail orientation: by picking up on minute details and following up on them, you'd be showcasing this attention to detail in conversation. Not to mention, it's just a great people skill to have in general: who doesn't love a good listener?
Most of the advice I've heard cautions against close-ended questions (those to which there's only one answer, eg, yes/no questions) and encourage the use of open-ended questions (which allow for more fluidity and elaboration in conversation). To that, I'd add that a good question takes into account two things: depth of perspective and focus. A good question, typically, is single dimensional – focusing on one detail at a time, so as not to overwhelm the listener with too many expectations – and perspective-shifting, or at the very least considerate of alternative perspectives. It's good practice to poke and prod at things that are taken for granted in a conversation – and see if you can consider them or frame them in a different light. As with the curiosity tip, this is all about dimension and depth – allowing you to gain an understanding of the full scope of a situation or dilemma. By picking up on small details and overturning them in your questions, you open up the scope of the conversation to a new space – one where more solutions, ideas, and possibilities may come to the fore.
On a more general note, good questions are always clear and self-evident (meaning they require no repetition to be understood), and relevant to the context at hand. A lot of the earlier tips focus on depth and perspective, but remember these things don't exist in a vacuum. This should go without saying, but if your questions don't relate to your current conversation, don't force them in.
Finally, use silence and time to your advantage: don't rush it. If you can't think of any life-changing questions on the spot, that's okay. Focus on establishing the basic facts you need to know before working up to the bigger, deeper questions. Take your time to come up with responses, and plan in advance if, and when, you're able to. Over time, thinking of the bigger picture and the smaller details will, with practice, come much more naturally.
When all is said and done, as both a law student and legal practitioner, you shouldn't ask for the sake of asking. Ask to find out more, ask to follow up on your research, ask because you've picked up on uncertainties to which you demand the answer. The point of this article wasn't to provide a formula or one-size-fits-all approach to asking questions – there's no 'right' or 'wrong' way to do it. Instead, the aim of my article was to encourage some independent thought about what makes a good question in the context of a conversation – just as a way to get the ball rolling.