Many young lawyers leave law school having had absolutely no experience interacting with clients. This is unfortunate because interviewing clients is one of the most important and frequently used legal skills. Young lawyers, especially litigators, are often focused on advocating for clients; however, the inability to interview the client effectively limits the ability to represent the client competently. For example, ineffective interviewers leave some facts undisclosed or fail to understand or empathize with the client’s legal dilemma.
To improve your interviewing skills, you need to work on establishing trust, gathering information, and closing the interview.
The initial interview is the most important interaction with a client—it is where a lawyer begins gathering relevant facts. Lawyers generally do not have a great deal of information about the client prior to the first interview. Similarly, clients are often intimidated by the lawyer and are uninformed of the lawyer’s role during the initial interview. For these reasons, it is imperative that the lawyer establish a level of trust with his or her client during the intitial meeting. First, a warm smile and strong handshake go a long way toward making the client feel more at ease. Second, a lawyer should try to avoid alienating himself or herself from the client by sitting behind a desk. Rather, a more conversational area in the office, such as a small table with two chairs, is a more appropriate venue. Finally, opening the interview with small talk lets the client know that he or she is free to be candid and that the attorney is interested in the client as a person.
After the client is more relaxed, explain how an effective interview works and what is expected of him or her. The lawyer should alert the client about confidentiality, inform the client of any time constraints on the interview, establish the representation’s goals, and discuss fees. Discussing fees can be a sensitive subject with clients; however, discussing fees up front not only builds trust with the client, but also helps the client make an informed decision about whether or not to engage the attorney.
The meat of the interview follows the introduction. Professor Martha Peters, the author of several books on how to interview and counsel clients (The Counselor-at-Law: A Collaborative Approach to Client Interviewing and Counseling, Second Edition 2006), divides the actual interview into three distinct areas: “narrative,” “time line,” and “topic exploration.” The narrative is when the lawyer hears the client’s story for the first time—it’s the client’s time to shine. Because the narrative is client-focused, a lawyer should refrain from interrupting the client unless absolutely necessary. If the client struggles to tell his or her story, asking open-ended questions will keep the narrative rolling, giving the lawyer all the information that he or she needs to begin researching the relevant issue.
The second portion of the interview is the most straightforward: the time line. A time line is merely a tool for the lawyer to understand the sequence of events. After listening to the client’s story, it is helpful to jot down a time line of events and verify it with the client. The time line ensures that the client stays focused and keeps his or her story organized.
The final, and most difficult, portion of the interview is topic exploration. Topic exploration permits the lawyer to take the time line’s larger topics and “funnel” them down to very narrow facts. A funnel generally starts with an open-ended question about a given topic, which is then followed by a series of more narrow questions. This process assists the client in making sure that he or she tells the lawyer everything that he or she knows about a particular topic. Knowing all the facts up front, and keeping them organized, makes a lawyer’s job much easier when he or she comes back to the client’s file and starts research and analysis.
Closing the Interview
At the end of the interview, be sure to present the client with a representation agreement, clarify any fee questions, and explain the next steps in the representation. After the client leaves, the lawyer should immediately condense all of her notes into a memorandum for the file. That way, all of the important facts relating to the client’s situation, as well as a clear statement of the client’s goals, will be in one organized place.
- The Art of Practicing Law: Talking to Clients and Colleagues. PC# 1620497. ABA Book Publishing. Available at ShopABA.org