Over at Simple Justice, Scott Greenfield put up a great post yesterday about listservs and the people who ask and answer questions on them. The post is actually about quite a bit more than that, but I’m not going to summarize it for you. Go read it.
Anyway, I have no experience with criminal defense lawyer listservs. I’ve never asked or answered a question on one, and I never intend to start. I don’t see how asking important questions of a bunch of people I don’t know is a good idea for me or the client I’m trying to help. I also suspect any advice I might offer would merely drown in a sea of other opinions. I almost joined a listserv for lawyers here in Arizona after someone told me it was what rallied other lawyers to go crazy in the comments section of this blog, but I never got around to it. It just wasn’t worth my time.
I want to get my advice from known, reliable sources. That’s one reason why listservs aren’t my thing, but there’s actually something that runs a lot deeper than that. When it comes down to it, it’s the fundamental idea of asking questions in a forum that assumes they can be answered easily that really bothers me. Creating the illusion of quick answers to important questions leads down a dangerous path.
I learned very quickly as a child that a good route to success in grade school was relying on other people for everything. Ask and ye shall receive. Pepper teachers and everyone else with questions, and they’ll spoon feed you everything you want, one piece at a time. The teacher just stands there, available for questions. You don’t have to figure anything out for yourself if you just keep asking questions. People often mistake your stupid questions for expressions of genuine interest too. It’s a sure route to success in school without trying very hard, but it’s a terrible way to learn anything.
When music caught my fancy and I really wanted to get good at it, I had become so stuck in my habit of asking stupid questions that I would inadvertently resort to over-questioning even though I really wanted to learn. My first horn teacher in undergrad bluntly asked me, “are you going to keep asking retarded questions or are you going to play a little horn?” He analogized what I was doing by asking so many questions to trying to inflate a balloon by pulling on an infinite number of points on the outside of the balloon simultaneously. His comment: “you should probably just blow in the damn balloon, Matt. It’s easier in the long run.”
Unfortunately, when you have a job where you are not in charge and have no discretion, asking constant questions is not only helpful if you want to skate by without having to actually master anything, but it’s often expected regardless of your intention. You need to do everything exactly like your boss tells you, even those things that may amount to little more than the boss’s personal preferences.
Once a lawyer begins representing clients, the constant questioning should stop. The model where you need input on everything from someone else doesn’t work. What would the client think if he or she knew the person taking his or her hard-earned money needed a step-by-step tutorial to do even the most basic tasks? What happens if no one’s there to answer the lawyer’s question when something really tricky comes up?
Everybody has to ask questions sometimes. At that point, seek out someone who knows the answer and talk to that person. Prepare so you can explain everything thoroughly, do as much research as you can to avoid wasting the person’s time on things you could have found out on your own, and make sure you’re getting the information you need from someone you trust. Asking questions is fine if that’s how it’s done. It’s the relentless, easy questioning that’s problematic.
This all brings me back to listservs. The questionable accuracy of the information aside, the problem with listservs really comes down to the ease of asking. When it’s easy, people tend to revert to the kind of questioning that makes them reliant on others for everything, the kind of questioning that got me through grade school but failed at teaching me anything valuable.
Taking advantage of the availability of simple answers can quickly become a crutch and invade everything you do. It’s a highly infectious way of functioning both at work and in daily life. The ease of asking questions on listservs and even the ease of asking questions on the internet in general, for that matter, only encourages mindless and unproductive questioning. It ultimately gets in the way of ever really building knowledge or skill.