Guest Post: Erin Kenny on “The Importance of Asking the ‘Extra’ Question”

Today’s guest post is by my friend Professor Erin Kenny of Campbell Law who reflects upon how her experience as an Air Force judge advocate (JAG) taught her the critical importance of challenging assumptions by asking the ‘extra’ question.

The Importance of Asking the “Extra” Question

By Erin Kenny 

 Last Fall, I taught an orientation program for incoming 1Ls the week before classes officially started.  The program, Campbell Advantage, teaches incoming Campbell Law students basic skills like reading and briefing cases. 

As part of the course, professors meet one-on-one with students to discuss a mock essay and how to improve writing.  I met with one of my Campbell Advantage students two weeks after classes started.  While the student seemed upbeat and eager during the orientation program, she seemed visibly irritated after reviewing her mock essay. 

My initial thought was, “She’s unhappy with the way her essay was graded.  This is probably the first time she’s receiving negative feedback, and she is not taking it well.”  The student and I discussed the essay, and while her demeanor didn’t change, it also didn’t seem like my feedback was what was really bothering her.

As we were wrapping up our conversation, I asked her one last question—how were her first two weeks of school going?  The student’s demeanor immediately changed. 

Why?  It turns out she was finding law school to be markedly more difficult than she anticipated.  In fact, she was so stressed about the situation she started to cry.  But then we began a great conversation about how to keep working through the difficulty and to manage stress.  Her mood was visibly brighter when she left my office.

As a professor, it’s easy to make assumptions about students.  The student coming in late for class is irresponsible, unorganized, and disrespectful.  The student who failed to turn in an assignment on time is lazy.  The one who failed the test either didn’t study or just doesn’t grasp the material. 

I believe adherence to standards like attending class on time and demonstrating knowledge sufficient to pass a course are critical for the practice of law, and I hold my students to those standards. 

However, there can be reasons for the problems students may suffer that are not necessarily the ones that can too easily be assumed.  To discover the actual causes, some probing may be needed. 

Fortunately, my time in the Air Force JAG Corps taught me to scrutinize easy assumptions and to ask the extra question.  Asking the extra question makes me a better attorney and professor.

Asking the Extra Question in the Air Force

While serving in the Air Force JAG Corps, I provided legal advice to other military officers on a myriad of topics, to include planning military operations.  I was often the only attorney in meetings attended by a variety of Air Force officers with particular expertise such as pilots, engineers, doctors and more.  Many had much experience in there respective career fields.

As a result when I began attending military planning meetings, I assumed that all of these smart and accomplished people would easily identify all the possible concerns that could derail the effort.  Indeed, many of these highly-intelligent and well-educated people often did believe they were addressing the full range of issues.           

However, I found that wasn’t always the case, and I soon realized that lawyers are trained to think differently.  Lawyers learn to examine issues from different angles and try to figure out what information is known and what particulars are still needed. 

While others could bring certain in-depth knowledge–such as how to fly a plane or to construct a building–they could still miss important issues because they sometimes too readily took things for granted, especially those that were beyond the scope of their particular expertise. 

Yet addressing just such matters was frequently essential to ensure what was often a multi-dimensional project coalesced into success. 

Consequently, I learned to carefully prepare, listen intently to what was presented, then ask the extra question–even if it might seem like it involved a long-accepted basic assumption. 

Maybe the question concerned specific funding source would be used for a project; perhaps it asked what methods were used to gather intelligence for a critical operation, or what international agreement we had with the country involved in the activity.  More then once I found something everyone believed was settled was actually suspect.

When a question seemed to upset other attendees, I learned it might simply be that they did not understand my point, so I needed to ask if I was explaining the law clearly enough.  Others might just be overwhelmed and distracted by a looming deadline. What was important was to use appropriate questions to discover the real issues and deal with them.

While speaking up in meetings was sometimes uncomfortable and even intimidating, asking the extra question not only protected the Air Force from some illegality, it also could help find a path to accomplish the desired project the right way.

All Lawyers Need to Ask the Extra Question 

Asking the extra question to clarify assumptions is relevant beyond practicing law in the military or teaching first-year law students. 

Clients do not always understand the law or fail to mention key facts, or both.  The defense attorney needs to ask the right questions of his or her client to make sure key information isn’t presented for the first time on the witness stand. 

A transactional attorney needs to make sure he or she has all the right documentation to accurately complete a merger.  An estate planning attorney needs to ask who the executor of an estate will be, and to probe whether he or she is really the best person for the job.  These tasks require asking sometimes uncomfortable questions.

As a law professor, I am always asking my students questions.  What is the holding of the case?  What are the elements of the statute?  Why was this law enacted?  I want to them to learn to ask the tough questions and not take things for granted that could later prove problematic. 

In the practice of law, things are not always as they seem and a lawyer needs to find the truth.  Asking that extra question just might facilitate that quest.

However, I also remind myself to question my own assumptions, both about the law and about other people.  Hopefully, this makes me a better professor and teaches my students to question their own assumptions and ask the extra question.

About the author

Professor Erin Kenny teaches Criminal Procedure, Criminal Law, and Trial Advocacy at Campbell University Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law.  Professor Kenny also served as an Active Duty Air Force Judge Advocate for ten years, and currently serves as an Air Force Reserve Judge Advocate.

Professor Kenny earned her B.A. in psychology and Spanish from Ohio Northern University, her Juris Doctor from New England School of Law, and her LL.M in Military Law/National Security Law from the Army Judge Advocate General’s School. 

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!

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