The basics of client interviewing
We signed up to the competition and were about to do our first interview. The University of Sunderland conducts an internal competition involving progression through a first round, second round and final round to decide who represents our law school in the regional heats.
On a dreary day in October, dressed the part, determined, confident and feeling totally prepared, we were ready to part our knowledge on a client and impress the judges. We had practiced the handshake and introduction 50 times, so how hard could it be? The one thing we failed to do was look at the assessment criteria and tailor our interview plan accordingly. Rookie mistake.
So, in line with the grading criteria (http://www.clientinterviewing.com/assessment-criteria.html) here are a few things we learned from our first interview. Many of these areas will be expanded on over the coming weeks.
- Establishing an effective professional relationship
The hardest part is getting the balance right between being over-friendly and professional. Building trust takes time and whilst small talk is a good way of relaxing a client it can also overtake the purpose of an interview, so keep it short, sweet and relevant. The weather is often the go to topic of conversation when a client enters but is very predictable. Try and avoid clichés (if they are sitting in front of you, they found you ok) and think of something more original. Remember, no amount of small talk will substitute a good empathetic professional relationship.
A good introduction will include all of the professional standard requirements (legal professional privilege, confidentiality etc) but it is easy to sound scripted, especially if you have rehearsed the introduction several times in advance. In our first interview I turned our client into a nodding dog and would be surprised if they really understood or listened to what I was saying. Having bullet points in front of you will remind you of the required elements, while allowing you to sound more natural. Alternating sections of the introduction between you and your partner will stop the client focusing solely on one person.
- Obtaining information
A good way to understand a problem is to start with an open question, which also limits the client’s ability to ramble, for example, “Can you briefly explain the issue you have?” This will allow you to take control when needed or ask the client to expand on what they are saying.
What do you already know about the client? What do you need to know? Even if you think you know always reflect before moving on and clarify any details, just in case!
- Learning the client’s goals, expectations and needs
It is very easy to get carried away and promise to solve all your client’s issues in one go, and whilst they will likely love you for it, it is not realistic. Learning to manage a client’s expectations is just as important. If what they want is not possible, then say so (in a nice way of course).
- Problem analysis
Do your homework beforehand but do not over analyse! It is easy to look at the brief information you are given and let your mind run away with ideas of what you think their problem is before you truly know. Yes, have an understanding of the area of law but if you are overconfident, when it is an issue you are not prepared for, it will throw you off completely. It is better to say you aren’t sure and that you need to look into things further than give the client incorrect advice.
- Legal analysis and giving advice
Remember you are dealing with a client, a person ‘on the Clapham omnibus,’ who often has little or no knowledge of legal terms, so talking in jargon will probably confuse them. Whilst you may want to impress the judges with your knowledge of cases and legislation, stick to plain English then demonstrate what you do know in the reflection. Don’t forget it is about client interviewing, not how many cases, ratio decidendi and obiter dicta’s you can recite. Your client does not care about legislation or whether you can support their argument with a case, they just want you to solve the problem.
From my experience, the biggest piece of advice I can give you is, if you do not know the answer, do not guess! Simply inform your client that you are unsure of their legal position, you will need to assess their issue further and full advice will be given in due course. You may lose a couple of marks for not giving advice but you will lose a lot more marks for giving the wrong advice. Trust me I know, I remember telling someone in an interview that they were going to be arrested for stealing a cat. Oops!
- Developing reasoned courses of action
The best piece of advice I can give on this is be realistic and consider the fact that, whilst every lawyer wants to retain a client, legal options may not always be the best option. If you have a rough idea of the area of advice, research alternatives before your interview and consider signposting (only if relevant). Where it is not appropriate and you have looked into alternatives, outline your findings in your reflection at the end.
- Assisting the client to make an informed choice
Do not be afraid to advise your client what you think and guide them to make an informed choice but do not be pushy (yes I admit I am a little bossy). Remind your client it is their decision, even if you don’t agree (I am always right though! Ok, this was clearly an area I needed to work on).
- Effectively concluding the interview
What are you going to do and when? Ultimately your client wants to know what happens next but remember to recap what they need to do too. Do they need to send in paperwork? Do you need more information?
I was very fortunate to have a partner who complemented me and I can genuinely say we worked well together. Jemma was as hard-working and driven as I was and genuinely wanted to do well in the competition. It helps to find someone who will prep as much as you, practice with you and party into the wee small hours of the morning (then carry your heels home when you have taken them off in the middle of Exeter because you can no longer walk in a straight line).
The lovely Jemma
Our success was largely because we both wanted the same outcome and had fun along the way.
- Post interview reflection
Whilst this is a good opportunity to impart your understanding of the law, it is also the time to reflect on your interview and learn from your strengths and weaknesses. What did you do well? What would you change? Do not be afraid to acknowledge your weaknesses and if you think you have messed up then don’t panic, use this time to reflect on what you would do differently next time. Everybody makes mistakes!
For some of you this will be the first time you have interviewed a client in this way, for others you will have done it before and you are probably feeling a bit more confident. Either way, the first interview is always a learning curve and you may be surprised at what you do and do not know. Take on board any constructive criticism for what it is, it is not an attack on you, it is an opportunity for you to make mistakes, learn what works and what doesn’t work, then move on and implement the changes in your next interview.
Most importantly it is not the end of the world if you do not progress, there is always next year and you have gained valuable experience! Good luck to you if you are about to do your first interview and feel free to contact us if you have any questions!