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Legal Professionals: 10 Tips for the Potential Client Interview

Posted by Doug Barrett | Oct 19, 2020 | 0 Comments

image of handshake

For legal professionals, the initial interview with a potential client sets the stage for how smoothly everything else follows in a legal matter.  There is often no opportunity to prepare for this first contact, so it is worth taking a few minutes daily to skim a handy list of things to be prepared for when a potential client calls.  Here is an easily memorized list of 10 Tips to make your potential client interviews productive and satisfying for all concerned.  This list draws heavily from lecture notes provided by law professor Scott Haddock of the Edmonds College paralegal program in Edmonds, Washington, for the Interviewing & Investigating class I completed in the spring of 2020.  We begin with a one-glance summary, and then drill down a bit into each of the ten tips.

OVERVIEW OF THE INTERVIEW PROCESS

      1.  Greet and Introduce

      2.  Share Your Purpose

      3.  Assure Confidentiality

     4.  Send Demeanor Cues to Lead by Example

     5.  Practice Active Listening

     6.  Ask Good Questions in a Strategic Order

     7.  For Paralegals:  Avoid Unauthorized Practice of Law

     8.  Maintain a Balanced Flow of Control

     9.  Round up the Documents and Key Contacts

   10.  Leave the Potential Client with a Full Feeling of Closure for This Meeting

GETTING STARTED

1.  Greet and Introduce

     •  Greet and situate potential client for comfort

     •  Match the potential client's formality level, within professional bounds

     •  Offer refreshments

     •  Ask if potential client has been to a law office before

     •  Remember:  Relaxation Creates Capability

          •  Relaxation and support enhances memory

          •  True for both client and associates

2.  Share Your Purpose

     •  Paralegals:  Explain your role on the legal team

          •  In charge of getting all the facts for the attorney's analysis

          •  In charge of keeping information complete

          •  In charge of communicating with the right place at the right time through legal process

          •  To avoid unauthorized practice of law, cannot draw legal conclusions or give advice

          •  Cannot negotiate fees or decide whether to take a case

          •  Ask if the potential client understands the paralegal's role

          •  Describe the attorney's process following the interview

3.  Assure Confidentiality

     •  Everything the potential client tells our legal team is strictly confidential

     •  Explain attorney/client privelege and how it applies even if the case is not accepted.

BODY OF THE INTERVIEW

4.  Send Demeanor Cues to Lead by Example

     •  Friendly, empathetic, yet professional

     •  Avoid using "I," "you," and "but."

     •  Avoid judgment

     •  Avoid expressing personal opinions

     •  Model gestures of respect

     •  Avoid treating potential clients like they have done anything wrong

     •  Do not place potential client on the defensive

     •  Avoid legal jargon

     •  Focus on plain, accessible language

     •  Identify and temporarily disable your nervous ticks

     •  Nervousness signalled out comes back, by contagion, as hindered client performance

     •  Project as much humble confidence as you WANT your client to gain. 

     •  Demonstrate humility is a strength that supports other strengths and advantages

     •  Model the resilience and durability you WANT your client to gain.

5.  Practice Active Listening

     •  Appropriate body language

     •  Feed client confidence through eye contact

     •  Disable any urge to rush

     •  Recite back the client's key disclosures and feelings to verify your understanding of them

     •  Take good notes that all firm associates will understand

     •  Don't confine conversation to a prepared list of questions

     •  Be professionally detached without appearing unprofessionally detached or dismissive

6.  Ask Good Questions in a Strategic Order

     •  Always begin with an open-ended question.  "Tell me what brings you to us for help."

     •  Get dates, times and exact locations for key events

     •  Who, What, Where, When, Why, How, How Often, What For, Since When?

     •  Assume nothing.  Verify everything.

     •  Avoid open-ended questions where specific details matter

     •  Use closed-ended questions to evaluate the client's sources of information

     •  Use closed-ended questions to uncover gaps in the story

          •  Ask for explanations and details

          •  Ask for corroborating evidence

          •  Ask about existence and location of witnesses

     •  Ask client to draw rough pictures of key event places, objects, and positions of participants

     •  Avoid influencing or suggesting answers to your questions

7.  For Paralegals:  Avoid Unauthorized Practice of Law

     •  Avoid temptation to answer legal inquiries on legal rights and remedies

     •  Avoid giving impression of drawing any legal conclusions

     •  Avoid creating expectations in the client's mind about the value of their case

8.  Maintain a Balanced Flow of Control

     •  Control not the interview, but its flow and direction

     •  Go by feel to allow what's important to the client to emerge between questions

CLOSING THE MEETING

9.  Round up the Documents and Key Contacts

     •  Establish best communication channels and times

     •  Ask about dates and times the client may be out of town or unavailable, months ahead

     •  Ask who might have documents, receipts, contracts, business records, correspondence

     •  Make copies of documents and illustrations on hand.  Originals go home with client.

10.  Leave the Potential Client with a Full Feeling of Closure for This Meeting

     •  Close the meeting when the client appears appropriately informed and satisfied

     •  Brief the potential client on the legal team's follow-up routine

     •  Tell potential client when to expect next contact from attorney deciding whether to take case

     •  Remind client of confidentiality, attorney-client privelege.

     •  Instruct client not to discuss the matter with anyone until further contact from attorney

     •  "Is there anything else to discuss that we missed today?"

     •  "Do you feel like we accomplished everything we need to at this stage?"

     •  Give business cards

Handshake image:  CC Pixabay

About the Author

Doug Barrett

Paralegal Intern – Doug Barrett Doug brings over two decades of senior branch office administration experience from the financial services field, including regulatory compliance management in a professionally licensed environment.  His writing and editing skills bring the firm's message into foc...

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