Educating Your Client
What is the lowest value you would accept in settlement? Full or shared custody? Accept a plea bargain? How many times has a client looked at you and said "Well, what do you think?" Or even worse, "We have decided to go with whatever you think."
The problem comes when we, as attorneys, try to elicit information without providing the necessary background information the client needs. This education should begin in the initial client interview and continue throughout the relationship.
A lawyer must listen to his or her client—listen to the words and gather facts, but also listen to word choices, tone, and body language. What is your client telling you about his/her feelings? How you react to these nonfactual communications will build or tear down the relationship. Do not over–think your reactions to your clients’ words—just be yourself and your client will relax in your natural sincerity.
Allow clients to begin the initial interview by telling their story in their words. Only after a few minutes should you begin to review any of the legal procedures, laws, and remedies that may apply. Once clients trust that you will listen to their unique (in their minds) situation, they will settle in and be better able to absorb information you provide.
In my initial interviews of clients, I have in front of me a checklist of everything I need to tell them. Rather than reading down the list, I mark topics off as they occur in conversation. If an interview goes too far off–track, I refer to the list and say "We need to discuss another issue here." Somehow pointing to this list—delegating my authority for a second—makes the interruption more palatable to my clients.
The best client questions come not in response to a direct request like "Do you have any questions?" Instead allow clients to tell their story and ask the attorney for important information along the way. As the clients’ comfort grows, they will ask questions that give the lawyer a chance to go over some legal procedures and available remedies—things clients need before they can make decisions about their situation.
At the close of the interview, your clients hopefully feel confident in their understanding of their situation. This confidence will last about as long as it takes to leave your premises. Two things can help continue the positive relationship and communication—first, give clients papers that repeat a lot of the basic information you have provided. It may be a general list that you have highlighted, a follow–up letter you send the next day, or even a brochure. Second, be available for follow–up questions. Being available in at least two ways—phone and email, for example—help clients communicate with you in the way they feel most comfortable. And a comfortable client will retain more of the information you provide, so that benefits both of you!