by Claude Ducloux
While interviewing skills are critical to a lawyer’s success, few are ever trained how to do it. While colleagues in the medical profession spend a great deal of time learning how to “take a history” and probe the client for clues as to the source of their ailment or discomfort, no one seems to understand the importance of that process for lawyers. The value of properly interviewing proposed clients is immeasurable. A good interview can result in candor, trust, credibility, and choosing the most appropriate remedy for the issue presented.
The true purpose of a legal interview should result in the following: realistic expectations as to the limits of the legal rights involved, timelines and costs, as well as alternatives that may be available to the client.
The Incoming Client
Always keep in mind that as a lawyer, you are first and foremost a problem solver. People very rarely go to see a lawyer to communicate their personal joy. Usually, a trip to the lawyer represents a problem in their lives—it could be a personal failure, an unexpected tragedy, or being confronted with a legal situation that requires sage advice. Therefore, keep in mind that you rarely see people at their best during a client interview. Think of your own hopefulness when you have a debilitating medical problem and go to the doctor hoping that he or she will fix it for you. Expect the same hopeful expectation in the person consulting you: to fix a problem.
Though you may have wonderful technical skills (you may know how to file a mechanic’s lien, prepare an extraordinary writ, or file a complex consumer case), all of those skills are simply tools for you to solve problems. So, look at every legal matter as a problem that requires resolution.
Resolve Potential Conflicts of Interest Early
Older lawyers generally have learned the importance of resolving potential conflicts of interest early into the interview. If you wait 45 minutes into the interview, after the client has poured out their entire financial, moral, family history, and goals, and only then discover a conflict, you likely have already formed an attorney-client relationship, regardless of your being paid, or your intention to handle the matter.
Remember, whether an attorney-client relationship has been formed is in the mind of the client and not in yours. If, by your action or inaction, you have encouraged the prospective client to disclose all of their most serious, confidential information to you and only then do you determine that a potential opposing party is your client or a client of your firm, you may be completely conflicted from handling any portion of that case, even for your existing client.
So, as I mention, good lawyers attempt to discover in the first 5 minutes the names of parties or entities that may be involved and quickly determine whether a conflict exists. This is a hard lesson, especially for young lawyers who may not have had but a few dozen clients. Early on, a young lawyer may have few conflicts, but that likelihood only increases with time, even in a large city.
Form an Early Bond of Trust
Remember the old adage: you never get a second chance to make a first impression. This applies to your initial interview. Look like a lawyer. You want an aura of professionalism, confidence, and dedication. I apologize to those who will call my thinking old-fashioned, but if you show up in a t-shirt and flip flops to a first meeting, you are diminishing the client’s assessment of your professionalism.
Next, when the meeting starts, stop checking emails and hold all your calls. Feel free to make notes (I take very precise notes of the facts) and dedicate yourself 100 percent to attending to that client. Take a clue from our psychotherapy colleagues who believe that “healing begins when people believe they are being listened to.” Listen closely, carefully, and make sure the client appreciates your concentrated efforts to understand their issue. Remember: you are a problem solver. Often, the client communicates what you need to know in the first 30 percent of the interview. But, if the client has unreasonable expectations, you need to make sure you hear the entire story (even irrelevant facts) to have credibility when you need to “push back” on unreasonable expectations, which I will discuss in our next installment.
If you show interest, concentration, and ask intelligent questions, you very often are forming not only an attorney-client relationship, but a friend for life.
Claude Ducloux is the Director of Education at LawPay and is Board Certified, Civil Trial Law and Civil Appellate Law, Texas Board of Legal Specialization.