Legal questions are not always black and white. Some legal questions have clear answers. If I take a dollar from my paycheck and buy a lottery ticket and win, the winnings are community property. But a lot of of legal questions don’t have clear answers. If a wonderful step-father wants to adopt, but the biological father, who is in prison and has never paid child support or visited the child won’t agree, will the judge allow the adoption? That depends on the personal feelings of the judge, which may have even changed since I had that exact issue in front of him a year ago. It also depends on the details of the case. Why is the bio dad in jail? Has he tried to have a relationship? Is he getting out soon, or expressing a desire for a relationship?
Lawyers do a lot of homework to help them predict how a judge will rule when the legal answer is not black and white.
It is those unknown areas that frustrate people who find themselves in the unfamiliar world of the courtroom. I always give my client as realistic an idea of what to expect as possible. Usually, I do well at that. I have been in the same courtrooms, and worked with a lot of the same attorneys, and I have argued similar cases, read the same laws, and I diligently follow what the appellate and supreme court are doing with the issues I work with. That gives me a good feel for what will happen if we make a certain offer, or don’t reach a settlement, and end up trying a case to a judge or jury.
Legal questions that have clear answers rarely see the inside of a courtroom.
But I also explain that my feel for what will happen is often just that–a feeling. It is not a guarantee, and no lawyer will or can give you a guarantee about an outcome. Because the legal questions that have clear answers rarely see the inside of a courtroom. They settle early, and usually cheaply. What is left, is the fuzzy stuff; the legal questions without black and white answers. That is why we call it “practicing law”.