Stick to your personal methods to avoid misunderstandings with the client.
By Mark Chinn (Mississippi)
The initial interview has four purposes:
- To obtain enough general information about the case to chart a basic course of action.
- To give the client advice on how to protect him- or herself immediately.
- To establish the relationship and contract for legal services.
- To give the client comfort.
A variety of opinion has been expressed on how long the initial interview should last and how much detail is developed. You will have to develop your own method in this area. I recommend that you limit the initial interview to an hour or so because it is hard to assimilate much more than an hour’s worth of information at one time. Conferences that last longer than an hour are usually nothing more than nonproductive chat sessions. Finally, the client may elect not to hire you, and you will not want to take the chance of not being paid for more than an hour. This happened to me just the other day. I deviated from my normal process and spent about three hours with a dysfunctional family, trying to help them sort out a problem. When they left, they told me they would send me a check, but they later refused, saying they did not like my advice and that all I had done was sit there and listen to them for three hours, running up my fee.
One risk in limiting the initial interview is that you can miss an important detail. This risk diminishes with experience. So in the earlier years of your career, you might want to err on the side of a longer conference, but do not take too long.
Create a Form or Checklist
Most experienced lawyers have checklists or standard questionnaires to eliminate the possibility of missing important information. The length and detail of these checklists vary, but all should contain the following key items.
- Client contact and billing information
- Basic information necessary to prepare pleadings (date of marriage and separation, names of children, past residences, etc.)
- Financial information
- Information supporting claims to relief, such as grounds for divorce
The questionnaire can be completed in the initial interview or be given to the client as “homework.” We keep our initial questionnaire fairly simple and complete it with the client during the initial interview, thereby ensuring that we have the information at all times when we need it, instead of having to track it down from the client later.
One good technique to avoid misunderstandings and malpractice exposure is to have the client fill the questionnaire out herself and state what her mission or objective is with the representation. This will protect the lawyer from relying on information — or a lack of an important detail — which the client later claims is different from what the lawyer thought.
Another method of establishing the client’s mission is to include it in the contract or retainer letter. Of course, the client’s mission may be unreasonable. That is where the retainer letter is of value, since the lawyer may state what the mission is but qualify what is possible to obtain in court.
Warnings must be incorporated into your initial communications with the client. For example, once a client’s relationship with a spouse gets to the point that one or both of them are consulting with an attorney, clear and present danger of several kinds arises. One danger is that the other spouse will do something to the finances, such as drain a savings account or run up credit card charges. The client must be warned of such dangers and be told how to prevent them at the earliest opportunity. For example, several years ago I was about halfway through my initial interview with a woman who was telling me what a tough customer her husband was. She then disclosed their finances and the fact that they had about $100,000 in certificates of deposit at a bank in a town 90 miles north. She also disclosed that the CDs had just matured. Upon learning this, I said, “Stop right there. Leave me now and drive to the bank right now and get those certificates.” She later reported that as she was driving back from the bank with the money, she passed her husband on the Interstate driving toward the bank. The best way to make sure that all of the proper warnings are given is to include them in the initial client questionnaire.
Mark Chinn received his undergraduate degree from Iowa State University in 1975 and his Law Degree from the University of Mississippi in 1978. He is admitted to practice in all courts in Mississippi, the Fifth and Seventh Circuits and the United States Supreme Court. Mark is a frequent contributor in periodicals such as the American Journal of Family Law, The Family Advocate, Small Firm Profit Report and Fair Share on the subjects of client relations, service and law practice management.