There’s a saying that I (and many lawyers) have.

That saying goes like this: “It depends.”

It depends on what jurisdiction you’re in. It depends on how many employees you have. It depends on how much money you’re going to raise. It depends. It depends. It depends. 

(Other professions have this saying, too. I recently hurt my Achilles tendon, and most every doctor or physiotherapist I ask about recovery timelines and healing techniques tells me it depends.)

This saying is a good saying. It separates the Google-generated advice from value-added advice from a trained professional. It gives you (and me) the confidence that I’m addressing your needs in, and not out of, context.

But too often “it depends” becomes a crutch. I think of too many variables or possibilities, many of which are too remote to be relevant. “It depends” paralyzes good advice because there are too many routes to the final destination. “It depends” can become an excuse.

Clients don’t want to hear “it depends”. Clients want answers. They already know that “it depends”, that’s why they’re paying for advice: for a trained and experienced someone else to make a call. 

I’m guilty of using “it depends”. Sometimes, it’s to qualify advice. Sometimes, it’s just an out when the legal answer relies on too many factors beyond my client’s control. But most of the time, it’s just a bit lazy. Here’s how I deal with it:

  • Preparing and asking questions. I get to know my client and what they’re trying to accomplish. I had a prospect ask me what it would take to get a private lending business set up in Canada. Instead of saying, “well, it depends on…”, I asked detailed questions about the proposed scope of the operation. Armed with more knowledge, I didn’t have to say “it depends”, I just gave an answer.
  • Summarize effectively, with links to deeper info. When I get questions about, say, becoming a securities broker, I could say “well, it’s very complicated, and depends on…” a whole bunch of legalese. Instead, I summarize. Point form, 3 sentence paragraphs that capture the main issues, with hyperlinks to more detailed information.
  • Qualify appropriately. Once I know more context, advice comes framed within a world of assumptions. In this way, I tell my clients that if the rules of the game (as I‘ve asked about, and they’ve described) change, the advice might change with it. So at least now, it doesn’t depend on a world of infinite possibilities.
  • Value-add through experience. Rather than shoot down an idea with an “it depends” laundry list, I propose other options. Set up in this jurisdiction instead. Raise money using convertible debt instead. Outsource the development instead of hiring an employee. There are always other options to consider.

Business advice is not always straightforward. It often does rely on hidden factors. But my job is to uncover those hidden factors, not to carve out caveats. Want to learn more?