Advice for Your First Client Interview
So you have braved this current economic recession and started your own solo practice or small firm. You have secured professional liability insurance, found office space, and started building your Internet presence. Your phone has just started to ring, your email volume is picking up, and you are networking with other attorneys. You are no doubt focused on the business aspect of your law practice. All those steps are important to the success of your new business. Hopefully soon you will have your first client interview. If it goes well, you will sign your first client and start to actually practice law in addition to building the business side of your practice. Here are several critical elements to keep in mind before and while you meet with your potential client.
Actually Listen to What They Have to Say!
You surely have encountered many fellow lawyers who fight to explain the law in depth, arguing over each and every obscure point without really listening to the other side. This is not one of those situations. If you find that your potential client wants to spend the time arguing and bickering, then you have a good indication of what your working relationship will be. Remember that a client interview is also an attorney interview and is always a two-way street. The client needs to be confident in your ability to represent him or her, and you need to feel that you can work with the client. It will help you to adopt a listening frame of mind that you mentally take with you into the client interview. Because we are attorneys, clients come to us with legal problems, and in order to ultimately assist in solving the problem, we need to listen to find out what the details are. In addition to hearing and taking note of all the important facts, you give the client an important opportunity to get everything out in the open, creating an honest, sharing environment. Although it may sound cheesy, we always want the opportunity to tell our version of events, our story. No doubt they may have told friends or family members about their legal issue, but like a psychologist or doctor, you are listening to their story in a different, more objective light. This is probably the first time that they have explained all of the facts to you, and confided in you with issues they may have omitted from conversations with the other parties. You may have heard the legal issues and facts involved in other cases, but it is critical to understand that this matter is of high importance to your client. Imagine if you were in their shoes and you needed the help of a skilled attorney to represent you on an important legal issue.
Remember That You Must Manage Expectations From the Start
Your potential client may want the moon but may also have no idea what to expect as a realistic outcome for their specific case. I have heard people joke about how lawyers always respond to a question with “it depends” or “maybe,” without giving a firm answer. This is because you need to cover the different scenarios that may unfold in your handling of your potential client’s case. Don’t build up expectations to make them higher than what you are sure you can deliver because your client will remember what you said and rightly hold you accountable. If you do not know the answer to a question that you field in the interview, explain to them that you will research the issue and get back to them with the information. It is much better to deliver additional value to your client in your representation of them versus failing to deliver on objectives established early on. That is the difference between having satisfied clients who refer you to others and unsatisfied clients. This applies to the biggest and even the smallest of issues involved in your service to the client. For example, you need to make sure that you have established when and how you will communicate case updates. Follow though and timely return phone calls and emails the day they are received. Keep the client connected to the progress of the case with a prompt update of any important developments. There is nothing worse than promising to keep the client informed and not doing so. An email or phone call only takes a minute or two, while demonstrating professionalism and reflecting the attention that you are devoting to them.
Many law schools conduct classes on empathic listening and “the practice of law.” I’m sure that many of you have taken such classes, but most schools and teachers don’t treat them with the importance they deserve. You are much more likely to profit from developing this skill in your legal career, than from focusing on the legal abstractionisms that most law school professors devote time to. As a law student at UC Davis, I remember taking one of these classes that spelled out the principles of the client interview, but did not actually teach the practical art in any meaningful way. It’s like riding a bike because it comes easier to some than others, but can only be mastered with practice.
Adam J. Post is a Los Angeles criminal and family law attorney. His solo practice, the Law Office of Adam J. Post, focuses on criminal defense and family law. Mr. Post is a former deputy district attorney and a graduate of UC Davis Law School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and he maintains his website at http://www.adamjpost.com and his Los Angeles DUI Defense and Family Lawyer blogs are published at LADuiDefense.blogspot.com and MyLosAngelesFamilyLawyer.blogspot.com/ .
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