October 2004
Volume 1, Number 1
Table of Contents

Ten Tips for Successfully Interviewing Juvenile Clients
by Courtenay Morris

A good initial client interview is crucial to successfully representing juvenile clients. My work in the public defender’s office, representing juveniles accused of everything from loitering to armed robbery, has taught me that gaining a client’s trust and good representation go hand-in-hand. Below are ten tips I use to help guide juvenile clients through a successful initial client interview. These questions focus on trust-building and making juveniles more comfortable speaking to a lawyer.

1. Ask the juvenile if he wants his guardian in the room when the interview takes place.

In delinquency matters, juveniles come to court accompanied by a guardian and often assume that their guardian will stay with them during the interview process. It is important to tell the juvenile that the parent can wait outside or come in, depending on the juvenile’s preference. This is a perfect segue into explaining the concept of confidentiality: a juvenile client has the right to see a lawyer alone and to speak with that lawyer in confidence.

Often, juvenile clients will prefer to have their parent or guardian present during an initial interview. Although this may place the attorney-client privilege in jeopardy, it is important to remember that kids are usually going to trust the advice of their own parent or guardian before that of a someone they have never met before. So heed their request, despite the potential legal pitfalls associated with it.

2. Start the interview with something personal or something light.

This helps break the ice. It’s a sensible rule for any interview, but is especially important when interviewing kids, who are often nervous and confused. The simplest way to help kids feel at ease is to ask them about themselves: What school do they attend? What grade are they in? Do they do anything after school? Play sports, perhaps? Whom do they live with? Any siblings? These preliminary questions are important in helping juveniles relax into the interview.

3. Make sure your client knows why they are being interviewed by an attorney.

Some kids know exactly why they need an attorney and can articulate it. Others are more confused. If your client doesn’t understand what’s happening, this question provides another opportunity to explain who you are, what you do, and the reason for your meeting. The client’s answer also gives an initial insight into competency, and possible developmental disability or mental illness, all of which can come into play at trial or sentencing.

4. Listen to your client’s story in its entirety before asking questions or taking notes.

This is an important strategy for several reasons. First, allowing the juvenile to explain what happened demonstrates your willingness to listen and helps build trust. Second, allowing yourself to listen to the entire story facilitates your understanding of the fact pattern and helps elucidate the most important aspects of you client’s story. Third, this method tends to make the interview more conversational and less like an interrogation, which is an important tone to set in order to prevent the juvenile from becoming frightened and uncomfortable by the process.

Invariably, there are details you may not understand or aspects of your client’s story you may have missed. It is a good idea, once your client has finished speaking, to repeat the story back, this time with pen in hand, taking notes, and asking questions about parts of the story that are unclear.

5. When collecting details, don’t be satisfied with one-word responses.

Juveniles are not always forthcoming with answers to questions. Be prepared to ask very specific questions with careful phrasing, and rephrasing, so that no stone is left unturned.

6. When collecting details, don’t be afraid to ask about anything you don’t understand, including slang terms or phrases.

You won’t always understand everything your client tells you. When your client uses a phrase or word you’ve never heard, stop and ask for an explanation. For example, one of my clients was charged with making a threat against his teacher by yelling the phrase: “Watch what happen!” Confused about what threat my client had made, his mother explained to me that the phrase means “don’t touch me or else”; in other words, “watch what will happen to you if you mess with me.”

7. Explain all legal terms to your clients, including those you assume your client already knows.

Just as you might not understand everything your client says, chances are your client isn’t catching everything you say, either.

Even if your client can explain to you why he’s in trouble and needs a lawyer, he might not understand much else about the juvenile justice system (or any other aspect of the child welfare system). Don’t take any amount of knowledge for granted with kids. The great majority of juvenile clients do not know what a prosecutor is, what a trial is, what a plea deal is, or what pleading guilty means.

Be sure to explain any legal terminology. One of my clients pleaded guilty to a charge of aggravated assault. In order to explain what “aggravated assault” meant, I began by reading her the statute, which defines aggravated assault as attempting to cause significant bodily injury. Then I stopped and asked her if she knew what “significant” meant. She didn’t. Then I defined significant for her, and we kept going until she completely understood the charge against her.

8. Continually ask if your client understands what you are saying.

Juveniles are rarely assertive enough to stop and tell you when they don’t understand something. So far, only one of my clients has ever stopped me to say he didn’t understand what I was saying without me asking first. Most kids will wait patiently until you’ve finished speaking and may even look like they understand what you are saying. But almost without fail, if you pause and if they don’t understand, they will tell you that they do not.

9. Don’t let a breakdown in communication go uncorrected.

There are many potential differences between you and your juvenile client, and those differences can sometimes make communication difficult. But it’s imperative to have patience during those inevitable lapses and make sure that all misunderstandings are cleared up.

Recently, I was interviewing a client, who asked me a question regarding a possible outcome of his case. I didn’t understand him and asked him to repeat his question. He became frustrated and told me to “forget it.” Instead of moving on, I told him that I really wanted to understand what he had to say and asked him to explain his question. We were able to work through our miscommunication, and I was able to answer his question.

10. At the end of the interview, be sure to ask if your clients have any questions.

Chances are, even if you’ve been diligent about making sure your client understands the interview process, there will be some things that he has missed and other things that you forgot to say. It’s imperative to ask if your client has any questions about what’s happening to him.

Some clients will have a lot of questions. And when they’ve finished asking their questions, ask if they have more. Others will say that they don’t have any questions, but it is important to ask a second time. If they say ‘no’ again, try prompting them by saying: “You look like you might have a question.” Usually the juvenile does have a question about what’s going on, but is too shy to ask.

Courtenay Morris is the Assistant Deputy Public Defender at the Office of the Public Defender, Essex Juvenile Region, Newark, New Jersey.


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