Providing legal representation to children and youth is incredibly important work and can be very rewarding, but the complexity of these cases cannot be overstated: Lawyers need to have a strong understanding of federal, state, and local law; child development; services for children; administrative law; trauma-informed care . . . the list goes on. One of the first skills to learn is how to successfully interview your child client.
Build trust with your client. Building trust with your child client is absolutely essential to a successful lawyer-client relationship. There are a number of ways you can work to earn that trust. Pay attention to where your client meetings take place. They should be in quiet locations, preferably where the child feels comfortable, which both allows the child to feel safe but also allows you to see the child in context of his or her life, giving you a better sense of your client. Think about where you sit in relation to the client. Across a table can feel like an interrogation, but sitting next to them can feel like you are working together and are literally on the same side. For young children you may even want to sit on the floor as they play. Think about your body language—are you frowning or crossing your arms? These can be taken as signs of disapproval. If you need to take notes, ask your client for permission and explain why you are taking notes. You may also consider not taking notes during your first meeting or keeping note taking to a minimum so that you can really focus on your client.
Communicate clearly with your client. You also must ensure that your child client understands what you say. This point cannot be emphasized enough—as lawyers we often feel that we are speaking very simply even when we are not. Break down your points into simple and understandable language, use simple sentence structures, and avoid negatives, as they can be confusing. Pay attention to the language that your client uses, and adopt your client’s choice of words when appropriate. If your client has recently been through a trauma, keep communications especially simple and repeat important points. Most importantly, have your client repeat back to you the really important points you are trying to make. Just asking child clients to let you know if they do not understand will not generally work as most children do not want to admit a lack of understanding to an adult. Having them rephrase your points back to you ensures that they are following the conversation. You can also welcome and encourage questions.
Assess your client’s developmental level. It can be very helpful to assess your client’s developmental level to ensure you are speaking in a way that your client can understand. To assess a child’s developmental level, you can review existing records that will assist in evaluating a child’s cognitive functions, such as school records or psychological evaluations. In addition, does your client have a disability, and, if so, how does it affect communication and understanding? Does the client have a history of trauma? All of these factors impact understanding.
Listen to your client. This may sound simple, but ensure that you are actively listening and engaged. Ask your client about his or her interests and how things are going. Be sure that you are not so focused on the points you need to discuss that you miss an opportunity to hear what your client needs to discuss. If they had a bad day at school or are really missing their siblings, stop and ask about those concerns. By pausing to address their concerns, you help child clients focus on the items on your list, and you may also learn about other advocacy topics that need to be addressed, such as unaddressed special-education needs at school or a need for sibling visits. In addition, be clear about your role and the parameters of your relationship (e.g., is there lawyer-client confidentiality in your jurisdiction, and, if so, what are the exceptions?). Importantly, never make a promise that you cannot keep.
Respect your client. Many of the above points really center on respect for our child clients—allowing them to speak to us in a place they feel comfortable, listening to their concerns, encouraging questions and conversation, truly inviting collaboration. Through these basic points you will develop a strong relationship that allows you to zealously and successfully represent your child client.
For more information on interviewing your child client, check out the award-winning video Interviewing the Child Client (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OYLWkVHvgOM) as well as the guide Counseling Children and Youth in Times of Crisis (tinyurl.com/htcf6ua).