Why Lawyers Love the Phrase “It Depends”

February 22, 2024

If you’ve ever consulted an attorney with a legal question, chances are you’ve heard the somewhat frustrating answer: “It depends.” While this might initially seem like evasiveness, there’s a very good reason lawyers rely on this less-than-definitive response. The truth is, the law is rarely black and white; it’s full of complex nuances, loopholes, and potential interpretations.


The Nuances of the Law really do mean “it depends”


To understand why a lawyer might say “it depends”, consider a car accident:


  • The Facts: Two cars collide. At first glance, determining who is at fault seems simple, but a deeper examination changes everything. Was one driver speeding? Was someone texting and driving? Did weather conditions play a role? Was a vehicle malfunction involved? The answers to these questions will dramatically impact the ultimate legal outcome.
  • Telling Your Story: People involved in legal disputes often view their situation subjectively. How the facts of a case are presented to the judge can significantly sway opinions. An attorney’s job is to weave a client’s story in a way that highlights relevant points of law and creates a compelling case.
  • The Judge’s Role: Judges wield considerable power in the legal system. They decide how to interpret the law in specific cases, what evidence is admissible, and ultimately hand down rulings. Judges, like everyone else, have unique perspectives shaped by their background and experiences.


The car accident example demonstrates how even a seemingly straightforward situation can harbor hidden complexities affecting the legal answer. So the right answer to who was at fault in the car accident would be “it depends”


“It depends” and Legal Ethics

Here’s another important reason why lawyers often say “it depends,” especially when consulted by people they don’t represent – professional ethics.


An attorney-client relationship is a special one that comes with specific duties:

  • Duty of Confidentiality: Lawyers are bound to keep client information strictly confidential. This means they can’t offer advice to strangers they encounter, as they would have no way of knowing if doing so would create a conflict of interest with an existing client.
  • Duty of Competence: Attorneys are obligated to provide competent representation. This means thoroughly understanding a client’s situation and all relevant areas of the law. They can’t do this in a casual conversation with someone they don’t represent. And because there is a potential that this casual conversation could lead to bad advice (and a lawsuit) attorneys just don’t hand out advice to non-clients
  • Duty of Loyalty: A lawyer has a responsibility to put their client’s interests first. Giving off-the-cuff legal advice could unintentionally undermine that duty to existing clients. The could be engaging in a conflict by inadvertently advising adversaries


It’s Not Just Lawyers Who Say “It Depends”


While attorneys are perhaps most famous for the “it depends” answer, they’re not alone. Many professions rely on complex variables and specific situations. Consider these examples:


  • Doctors: A doctor might not provide a diagnosis or treatment advice without a thorough examination and medical history. Prematurely prescribing treatment could be as harmful as providing incorrect legal advice.
  • Financial Advisors: A financial advisor can’t recommend investment strategies without a deep understanding of your risk tolerance, financial goals, and personal circumstances.
  • Architects: An architect won’t design your dream house without considering local building codes, your budget, and the specific plot of land.


What Happens When You Need Legal Help

If you find yourself facing a legal issue, resist the urge to get informal advice from a well-meaning lawyer friend at a party or by calling random attorneys and hoping you can get an answer. Here’s what you should do:

  • Hire an Attorney: Schedule consultations with lawyers who represent clients in the relevant area of law and hire one. But be aware, until you’re a client, you’re going to get the answer of “it depends” and even after you do, you are still going to hear “it depends”
  • Full Disclosure: Be completely honest about your situation. Withholding information only harms your own case. And tell your story neutrally. Do not paint the situation or tell half-truths. If you are worried your attorney is going to judge you for your truth, you have the wrong lawyer
  • Ask Questions: Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification about legal jargon and procedures. A good lawyer will break down the law in terms you understand. I try to educate clients using analogies and I do my best to speak in plain language, not legal jargon.


The Takeaway

While hearing “it depends” can be frustrating when you want a clear-cut answer, it’s actually a sign of responsible legal practice. Attorneys who provide quick “solutions” without fully understanding your situation are doing you a disservice. The next time a lawyer gives you this answer, remember that it indicates a commitment to providing their clients with accurate, ethical, and well-informed advice.

If you want accurate and well-informed advice throughout the process of an uncontested, civil or simple divorce reach out to my office either through my contact form or by calling me. Once You have retained my services, you will find out I spend a lot of time emailing clients answers to their questions. In fact, I do not charge for emailed questions, but I do if you need a phone call. You will find my prices fair and affordable for an uncontested divorce.