Interviewing and advising
The essence of an interview between a lawyer and a client is an exchange of information and views. The lawyer requires certain information from the client in order to advise the client. The client wants advice from the lawyer.
The lawyer and the client must then decide jointly what should be done to progress the case, and what each of them must do to contribute to this process. In addition, the lawyer must ensure that the client has been informed of and understands certain vital points. These naturally include:
• How much the client will have to pay for the lawyer’s services.
• What the lawyer can and cannot do for the client.
• What further information the lawyer needs from the client and why this information is needed.
• What steps the lawyer will take on the client’s behalf.
• The timeframe within which these steps will be taken.
• The prospects of success in the client’s case (and the strengths and weaknesses of the client’s case).
There may be other vital factors according to the type of case being handled and the client’s own expectations. Establishing clear understanding with the client is crucial – if the client has not clearly understood these important issues there is a strong likelihood that he or she may become frustrated or angry at a later stage if the case does not proceed according to his or her expectations. These expectations may of course be wildly unrealistic – it is the lawyer’s role to ‘manage the client’s expectations’.
Watch the video on the website to help you complete the online exercises on colloquial expressions and comprehension.
It is crucial to prepare thoroughly for all interviews with clients. Here are ten useful tips:
• Determine the purpose of the meeting. When dealing with the first interview with a new client, it is helpful to instruct staff who book client interviews to obtain as much information from the client as possible about the nature of the legal issue on which they want your advice. If possible, handle the first enquiry from the prospective client yourself.
• Consider the most appropriate structure for the meeting.
• Plan an agenda.
• If the client has been referred from a colleague, speak to that colleague about the work being carried out for the client.
• If dealing with a corporate client, carry out some research into the client’s company.
• If dealing with an old client of the firm, retrieve the old files for the client and refresh your memory about the cases that the firm has handled for the client.
• Prepare the physical setting – clear your desk to avoid that omni-present law firm panic/chaos look. A physical setting that is informal, friendly and private will help make the client feel relaxed and comfortable. If you need access to your computer during the meeting have it started and readily accessible.
• Avoid interruptions – particularly avoid having to take phone calls mid-interview.
• Be prepared to offer the client refreshments – coffee, tea, water, etc.
• If the client has special needs (e.g. is disabled, blind, requires an interpreter) ensure that the appropriate arrangements are made beforehand.
Certain types of case lend themselves to the use of checklists and factsheets. Using these will help ensure that you obtain the most important facts in respect of the client’s case during the first interview. They can be completed in the client’s presence during the course of the interview.
Some care should be taken about the making of notes – whilst it is important to obtain all the relevant facts, the client will not like it if you spend all your time staring down at your notebook. Try to maintain eye contact with the client and do not allow your note-taking to impede the flow of conversation.
Watch the video on the website then take the online exercises on colloquial expressions.
The purpose of the interview is for the lawyer and client to work together to identify the client’s interests and achieve the client’s aims. The lawyer should know the topic of the interview in advance. This will allow him or her to determine what is relevant and to structure the interview so that all the relevant information is obtained.
However, the structure of the interview should not be too rigid. The lawyer must ensure that a natural flow of conversation, involving a genuine exchange of views, occurs. The interview should flow naturally from one topic to the next. It should feel comfortable and positive – it should not be marked by a series of highly specific questions. Clients do not enjoy being interrogated!
Listening is different from hearing and is actually quite difficult. Hearing is the process of receiving information. Listening is the mental processing of what you have heard. You need to pay attention not only to what is said but also to what is left unsaid, and to the body language which accompanies what is said.
The average rate of speech is between 125 and 175 words per minute, and the average rate at which information is processed is between 400 and 800 words per minute. The listener should therefore be able to assimilate thoughts, organise them and respond to the speaker and have time spare to deal with other unrelated mental processes.
Feedback falls into two parts. Firstly, it may be used with the intention of allowing the lawyer to summarise what he or she has been told by the client and clarify it with the client. The lawyer might say, ‘So let’s see if I’ve got this right. You told me that …’, or ‘OK, we’ve identified about five or so issues which we need to look at a bit more’. This process allows the lawyer to investigate further the matters being summarised and invite the client to expand upon or clarify certain issues.
Secondly, feedback may be used to encourage the client to communicate with the lawyer, for example when the client seems to lack confidence about the relevance of an issue (‘I’m not sure if this is relevant, but …’). Giving positive feedback at this stage (‘Please tell me what’s on your mind. I’m here to listen and help as much as I can.’) enables the lawyer to obtain fuller information from the client than might otherwise be possible.
It is also important to give continuous feedback to the client in the form of short phrases, which tell the client that you are listening carefully. You should encourage the client to speak by using phrases and words like ‘I see’, ‘that’s interesting’, ‘go on’, ‘right’, ‘yes’, etc. Even meaningless encouraging noises (‘mmm’, ‘uh-huh’, etc.) can be helpful in this context. They signal to the client that you are still actively listening to what they are saying.
16.3.4 Body language
It is important to demonstrate interest in the client and in what the client is telling you. Pay attention to your body language in this regard. The skills needed can be summed up by the acronym S-O-L-E-R:
S – Face the client Squarely, adopting a posture that indicates involvement.
O – Adopt an Open posture, one which suggests that you are receptive to the client.
L – Lean slightly forward; not aggressively, but enough to show that you are interested in the client.
E – Maintain Eye contact, but do not stare. Use your eyes to show interest, but vary your eye contact in response to the flow of the questioning.
R – Stay Relaxed