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  • Writer's pictureBarry Seidel

Law Practice Lessons From Columbo

Here’s a tried and true technique from the practice arsenal. I didn’t even know I was doing this until it helped me a bunch of times. Once I realized it, I started to refine it and do it more.

Peter Falk’s “Columbo” would often act like he didn’t know much and seem to fumble around as he asked questions. Sometimes he knew more than he let on but very often he really didn’t know and just wanted to find something out.

His well known move was to always come back for “one more question”. But his entire method of inquiry was to seem to not know much and to not seem to be on the right track as he questioned.

Sometimes, especially early in my career, I would just ask other lawyers questions, even my adversaries. I never worried it would reveal my ignorance and I found that other lawyers loved to tell me things.

As time went on and I knew more, I used the technique less, saving it for special moments.

One afternoon I consulted with a potential new client about a complicated estate litigation case. I wasn’t quite sure what the next steps in the case would be, as there were so many moving parts. The next morning I was in Surrogate’s Court and saw the lawyer who would be the adversary. He is a top lawyer who I respect. I approached him in the hallway and told him I had consulted with his adversary about the case, but I wasn’t sure yet if I was going to get involved.

Then I channeled my inner Columbo, scratched my head and said, “I’m just not seeing how this thing is likely to play out”.

He said, “We’re gonna, and then you’re gonna, and then we’re really gonna, and then you will….., and that’s how it’s going to go.”

To which I said “Thank you”

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