The key to an effective client interview is gentle control, clarity of process, and general transparency about what comes next. Here are a few tips to help you organize your thoughts and maintain direction during a client interview.
By Carrie Hagan, Clinical Associate Professor of Law
Many of us in law school didn’t take classes on conducting an effective client interview and/or counseling meeting. This meant that somehow we had to learn on our own, and the most direct route for that was to learn by doing, for better or worse. Whether you have never interviewed a client, or have been interviewing them for years, this article will give you a few pointers/reminders to organize your thoughts and maintain helpful direction during a client interview.
An Effective Client Interview is Not About You
The first thing to remember about interviewing is that it isn’t about you. Your role in this setting is to learn about the client. This can be tricky, because in order to build rapport, we often feel the need to connect through personal information. It’s fine to volunteer personal information to a client, but after doing so you may want to redirect them to the real purpose for your meeting: to learn about them.
We also need to be mindful that interviewing takes on a few additional challenges when in the realm of family law. As we know, family law cases can be highly emotional, and can deal with issues such as domestic violence, child abuse, anger, and sadness. Regardless of how we feel about emotions erupting in a client interview or meeting, the key is not to ignore them. Rather, you should acknowledge the client’s feelings or emotional response and then move on. This means acknowledging a client’s feelings before moving on. For example, you could say: “Do you need a minute?” or “I can see that this makes you really upset.”
Remember that each initial interview has four main goals:
- To get to know the client.
- To learn about their facts.
- To reduce their anxiety
- To clarify what they hope to get out of the situation.
Below is an approach you should employ so that you can leave interviews and client meetings with a more certain sense of where you stand and where you’re headed – both for you and your client.
For an Effective Client Interview, Begin On the Same Page
Start the interview with a brief meet and greet, as well as a clear statement of why you are there and what you hope to accomplish. A suggestion might be: “Thanks for coming in today. During our meeting I’d like to get some more information about you and your needs, then I’d like us to fill out some paperwork, and make sure we get any questions you may have answered. We have about an hour scheduled, so if you are ready, let’s get started.” This brief summary of your session not only initially puts clients at ease, but it also gives clear direction about why you’re there, how long you have, and what you want to get done.
Once you are ready, ask one or two open-ended questions to get the conversation rolling. This allows you to set a direction for your session while at the same time giving the client a chance to open up. You may want to take notes while the client is talking at this point, and check with or alert the client that you will be doing so. While the client is talking, be sure to engage them using “active listening,” which really means listening without interjection while using signals (such as nodding) that show you are interested and paying attention. You should not typically ask questions of the client at this point. Let them give you as much information as they can, as you will next be clarifying what they have just presented you with. Should clients ask questions of you during this session you may want to let them know that you will note each question and save it for later, as you really just want to get an idea of what the situation. This allows you to keep the client on track, note what questions they have, and then answer them when you are ready to do so.
Clarify the Client’s Goals and Details
When you feel like you have the whole story, or the client has reached a stopping point, take control again by using your notes to clarify the client’s goals and details. In an open-ended monologue, clients will often list events out of order and with lots of confusing details. This clarification allows you to make sure you have the pieces you need, get some of your questions answered, and obtain additional information from the client. This is also a good point to answer any questions that the client may have brought up and to fill out any needed paperwork. Once you feel as though you have accomplished as much as you need at this stage, you may want to move on. How you move on depends on whether you will be accepting this case or not. Should you be accepting the case you may want to discuss preliminary strategy or your initial thoughts about any action that can be taken, and then move to the next step. Do this even if you aren’t sure whether you will take this case.
Conclude the interview (or meeting) and list what your next steps will be. Your last step may be the most important. This is your opportunity to give a heads-up about what your process will be from here on out. Review what needs to happen before you can take further action, and wish them well with an idea of how you will next get in contact. Clients are especially anxious at the close of interviews or meetings, as they aren’t sure what comes next. You can use this last session to clarify what might follow and also to inform them of your timeframe. Be careful about giving clients specific days or times that you will contact them unless you are 100% sure that you will contact them then, as you will hear about it if you don’t. To avoid this, you may want to give them a generally specific timeline for future contact, with instructions about what to do if they have questions before they talk to you again.
Conducting an Effective Client Interview Requires Focus – and Practice
Interviewing, especially without practice, can at times be time-consuming and unproductive. Even with practice, the subject matter of family law cases can make interviewing challenging due to the emotions involved. To help you corral information and make your time useful for both you and the client, the framework above should help you to stay focused and on track. Each step should be tailored to your own individual style, but in general, the keys to an effective client interview are gentle control, clarity of process, and general transparency about what comes next.
For further information on basic skills that you may have missed, a great read is Essential Lawyering Skills (Wolters Kluwer Law & Business, 5th edition, 2015) by Stefan H. Krieger and Richard K. Neumann, Jr.
Carrie Hagan is a Clinical Associate Professor of Law and the Director of the Civil Practice Clinic at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis where she directs the Civil Practice Clinic, specializing in family and civil issues. In addition to teaching full time at the clinic and consulting, she has presented and been published on her interdisciplinary work with law and social work locally, nationally and internationally. www.mckinneylaw.iu.edu