July 18, 2012

Regardless of when you first meet the client, there will be an initial client interview that will set the tone for what follows.   New attorneys sometime struggle with what exactly it is they are supposed to do with this client in their office.  Many of you spent little time focusing on practical skills in law school.  You were busy developing your legal acumen and told yourself I’ll learn that when I need to.  Well the first time you meet a client is that moment.

Most lawyers are very comfortable focusing on the legal issues, clients are often least comfortable focusing on the legal issue and are instead consumed with their problems, some of which are legal and some of which are not.  Discovering the legal issues in the stories of your client is often like panning for gold – you know it when you see the glitter in the bottom of the pan, but sometimes you have to go through a lot of sand first. Discovering that valuable legal information requires a slightly different skill set than what is learned in most law schools. My goal in this post is to provide you with a logical construct that you can use to guide the process of dealing with the client so that you can meet the client’s needs and accomplish your goals as well.

The initial client interview is the place where the attorney client relationship is normally formed. The client is transformed by their consent from a prospective client into a current client. The legal significance of that transformation ensures that the starting point in pretrial practice is the initial meeting or interview between the advocate and the prospective client. Advocates must approach that meeting with a structure in place to insure that certain fundamental questions are answered. Those include (1) what should happen at this meeting? (2) How should the advocate plan for the meeting? (3) What fruit should this meeting bear?

When deciding how to proceed there are certain things that you know you will need to have accomplished by the time the meeting has concluded.  They include building a bridge to the client to increase communication, obtaining essential facts, getting documents, identifying the client’s goals, and most important, answering the question of what happens next.

So how do you make certain that you attain your initial goals?  You begin by having a clear sense of how you are going to talk with the client about the reason they are in your office.  Some good preliminary questions include:

1. Why do you need a lawyer?

2. Please tell me in just a few words what the problem is that you’re calling about?

3. Are there any other people or companies that are involved?

4. Tell me who it is that did this to you?

5. When did this event (e.g. accident) happen?

6. Is anything else bad about to happen to you that requires urgent help?

This approach will get the prospective client talking and produce some feeling within them that you care about their issues and have the ability to identify, and hopefully resolve, their problems.  Once you’ve accomplished these goals make certain that when the client leaves that you follow up as your firm’s operating procedures require.  At a minimum this usually involves a follow up letter, contract, and fee disclosure – after all we must be paid.  Let’s move on and look at initial case analysis, planning, and preparation.