Christmas is coming…

Most competitions are in full swing and many of you will have had at least one round of the competition already.  Christmas is approaching (although it is still November, so no Christmas Music and no Christmas trees until the 1st December people!), the drinks are flowing, and Christmas parties are in full swing but the nights are dark, it is wet and miserable and you are seriously broke.  With approximately £3.29 in your bank you are contemplating whether the pound shop do credit so you can buy presents for everyone.  Ah the student life.

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For most of us deadlines and exams are looming and it is very easy to let stress overtake your life and make you want to hibernate under the duvet. Balancing university workload, extra-curricular activities, jobs, other commitments and a social life is like trying to wrestle with a lion but there things you can do to not lose sight of the end goal.

To do the best for your client you need to make sure you are looking after yourself too and parallels can be drawn between your experiences in interviewing clients and practicing self-care. Care about yourself as much as you care about your clients.  Of course, adopting a caring perspective doesn’t mean you have to be caught up in a client’s personal life or that you convince yourself sleeping all week long is the way forward but there are things you can do to try and stay ahead.

A massive part of a lawyer’s life is organisation.  Developing these skills will benefit you far beyond the world of academia.  If you have progressed to the next stage, make sure you keep copies of your interview plans, structure and any feedback to look back on before you progress to the next stage.  There is often a little gap between the internal competitions and the regional heats and it is so easy to forget everything.  If you are not actively studying the area of law as part of your current programme of study, or it has been a while since you did, then keep up-to-date on current issues.  Even if it is just a quick scroll through The Times law section every week, just to see if there are any new developments.  If you do it regularly it will become routine and may also help you with other aspects of your studies.

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This is also a perfect opportunity for self-reflection.  Look at the judging criteria again and remind yourself about what you are being judged on. Have you asked for feedback?  If not, why not? Feedback is a good way of learning what you did well and how you can improve.  Peer review is so important, so sit down with your partner and talk about what worked and what you need to work on (over a cocktail or two usually works wonders! Well it is nearly Christmas).  Constructive criticism is always useful and will help you grow.

If your weakness is inviting the client in and building a rapport, then practice.  If it was the legal advice, then research the area and make sure you know the law but be careful not to overdo this as it can make you over-confident.  If your weakness is questioning, then read up on the types of questions you are asking and jot down some examples.  Are you asking a good opening question and then building a chronology? If your weakness is next steps, then practice how you end your interview.

Do not lose your momentum. Winning the competition or even just getting into the national finals will look amazing on your CV and make you stand out in the crowd.  Employers are looking for students who can demonstrate skills obtained outside a university setting and the competition is a good way of developing your skills in a safe environment, where it is okay to make mistakes now.

Practice what you preach – learn how to develop and care for yourself!

Managing Client Behaviour

Your client walks into the room and immediately gets angry, what do you do? You aren’t prepared for this and nerves are already bad and the panic sets in.  The tendency is to promise your client that you will solve all their problems and rush through everything, just to get them to calm down.  This is counter-productive as realistically speaking you will never be able to do that and you are likely to lose marks for missing conduct requirements out and being unable to manage the client and their expectations.  So how do you deal with clients who are angry, impatient, sad, silent etc?

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Impatient Client

So, you invite the client in and they instantly become impatient and want to know if the appointment will last long because they have somewhere to be.  It would be easy to become flustered and to rush through everything at their pace and miss things.  In a nutshell, don’t!  Acknowledge that they are pushed for time and advise them on what to expect and how long the interview is going to take.

If they still seem impatient, calmly advise the client you will do your best to be as quick as possible, but you really want to give them the best possible service and that you must go through professional conduct requirements and gather enough information to advise them correctly.  Stay calm, do not be phased by their willingness to rush!  Do not be afraid to professionally take control of the interview, without being too forceful.download (2)

Angry Client

Let’s face it, very few people go to a lawyer for happy reasons, they are often in crisis and visit for less palpable reasons, such as the highly emotive areas of divorce or disputes.  Remind yourself that they are likely to be stressed, do not take it personally it is not directed at you and anger is just a by-product of the legal issue they expect you to deal with urgently.  Be careful not to promise them the earth in an attempt to get them to calm down.

Every client reacts differently; be attentive to their body language, acknowledging feelings and concerns. Give your client an opportunity to vent, they will run out of things to say eventually (hopefully) and interrupting will likely frustrate them further but do not be afraid to take control of the situation if they have been venting for too long. Remind them you are there to help and won’t be able to do that if you do not understand the situation fully.  If they remain angry or are veering off on a tangent, use questioning techniques to control the information you receive (closed questions, summary questions) and where you have an opportunity to interject, stay calm and always remain professional.

Focus on solutions not problems, what can you do for client? As tempting as it is to agree to everything your client expects, be realistic, sometimes what they want is not possible and you have to say no. A client is looking for honesty not a reassurance that ‘everything is going to be ok’ and you can ‘change the world’ when the opposite is likely to be true.  Explain why you have come to that conclusion and if the client is angry with the solutions you are offering, acknowledge their disappointment and politely remind them of your obligations under the SRA Code of Conduct.

Whatever the source of their frustration is, you will need to find a way to defuse the anger in a safe and effective manner and the best way to do this is to basically “kill them with kindness.”  Even the most irritated of clients will soften eventually.

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Silent Client

Tick tock tick tock, awkward silence, the minutes slip by and your client is sitting in front of you not saying a word.  You don’t have enough information to provide advice, the interview has stalled, and you are worried it is all going to be over in 10 mins max, instead of the allotted time.  What do you do?

A client can be quiet for a variety of reasons; sometimes they are nervous, sometimes they are worried. The key to a quiet client is to make them as comfortable as possible. Building a rapport with your client will help them relax; professional yet friendly, finding some common ground that will put your client at ease.  Take the lead! Your client will often mirror your body language, so be as open and receptive as you can, without sounding too eager.  Be empathetic and sympathetic but as always realistic.

A client may be worried they have done something wrong, so will deliberately emit information; recap legal professional privilege, assure them of the lawyer-client confidentiality and that you will stop them in the very rare circumstance that they say something that suggests that would not apply.

Tailor your questions to the type of client you have; use open-ended questions, where the client needs to venture more than a yes or no answer and encouraging body language.  Create a timeline of events and ask questions to fill in the gaps, reminding the client you are there to help them, so you need them to be as open and as honest as possible, so you can provide correct legal advice.

 

Do not be phased by the actions of your client, anticipate their behaviours and practice responses.  If you get flustered and do not handle the situation as well as you should, put things into perspective, everyone deals with a difficult client at some point or another.

As always, make mistakes, learn and move on.

 

Controlling nerves

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This is a subject that puts the jitters up me even thinking about it.  Nerves affect everyone in different ways; some people breeze through everything happily, while others come out in hives.  I am the latter.  Ask anyone I know, and they will tell you I am always hot, never cold, and being out of my comfort zone seems to make me worse.  At very best I resemble something that can only be described a beetroot, at worst I am sweating so hard that it looks like I have just come out of a swimming pool (attractive I know).

Initially, the thought of putting myself through something that would be judged by total strangers sent my anxiety into overdrive and I was adamant I was not going to enter.  However, I progressed through the competition to get to the national finals and placed second, trailing by only one point, so if I can do it you can too! (Que me telling you to read motivational memes and quotes …. Ok, no they don’t work for me either and picturing people naked is just wrong).

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The first interview we did was not as bad as I was expecting but I was a bit of a shaky, sweaty mess by the end, despite having downed a fair amount of rescue remedy beforehand (not recommended).  Lucky for the client the handshake comes at the beginning of the interview; do not be tempted to wipe a sweaty hand on your trouser / skirt leg and then shake the clients hand, that will not go down well.

Given the nature of the competition it would be highly unethical if a live client was used, so naturally the it is often someone acting the part and most likely someone you know.  The fact I knew the ‘client,’ was quite off putting and the temptation to fall into a fit of giggles or grin widely was overpowering but with practice I developed skills to detach myself from the situation.  If possible, practice in front of friends or family and treat them as if you do not know them.  It will help.

The competition gave me an opportunity to find a way to control my nerves and develop coping mechanisms that will no doubt benefit me in the future.  I am by no means cured as for some reason being judged by my lecturer still sends me into a jabbering mess but below are some of the ways in which I attempted to combat nerves.

Breathe

Slow deep breaths, think of it as ‘just a conversation,’ the more you over-think everything the worse you will feel.  Slow down your speech and do not be afraid to pause.

Set the Scene

Make sure you have spent time in the room before your interview and the set-up is professional but comfortable.  Do not be afraid of arranging the furniture (where possible) to be beneficial to you and the client; Are you both sitting facing the client? Sometimes this can feel a bit like a job interview and will heighten your nerves, so consider rearranging the set so you it is not so rigid and formal (remember is still must be professional, so no sofas or deck chairs with Pina Coladas).   At regionals I asked for the judges table to be moved slightly as I felt too enclosed.  It was a little unorthodox, but I guarantee I would not have performed as well had they been so close.   You will not do well if your focus is elsewhere.

Dress Code

I cannot speak for men but as a woman I found that having high neck tops or blouses made me feel a bit too claustrophobic.  You need to be professional and wearing business attire but spending the entire interview fiddling with your clothing will not help your nerves or create a good impression with the client.

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Stay cool

It may sound cliché but make sure you are hydrated.  Cool water, not something hot or loaded with sugar that will make you hyper and avoid spicy foods (curry the night before  is not a good idea – trust me!)

Take care of yourself

For some reason I had an abject fear of being judged by my lecturer and in regional and nationals an observer can be present in your interviews, so I kindly asked our coach/lecturer not to be present during the interview (something that in hindsight was a good idea when we told someone they were going to be arrested for stealing a cat – I can just picture him now sitting at the back of the room shaking his head).  Do not be afraid to ask for something, if you think it will benefit you.

Relax

Find out what helps you relax.  For me it was taking 5 mins out before and after the interview to just calm myself down and breathe.  At nationals our first interview was good, but I was so conscious of the mistakes I thought I had made I was starting to think what is the point. I took time out to focus my mind before moving on to the next one. Give yourself a break, you are doing the best you can; make mistakes, learn and move on.

Reflections

There is a temptation to get to the end of an interview, when the client has left, breath a huge sigh of relief and then forget you are still being judged on the reflection.  My partner did that in the finals when she was so conscious of her northern accent, that she had tried to supress, she got to the end of our very last interview and reverted to a broad Makem accent.  It was rather funny on reflection and after months of rounds and our final interview we were ready for the wine reception and to let our hair down (I apologise to Exeter for my intoxicated state).

Ultimately you will find what works for you and over time the nerves will subside.  The more you practice the better you get.

 

Relax and enjoy the journey!

 

Question Types

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Gaining an understanding of your client’s position is a key element of any interview.  The skill in obtaining the information you need is effective questioning of your client to attain details relevant to their situation.

  • What is the problem?
  • What is their expectation?
  • What are their available courses of action?

Forming the main part of an interview, questioning is a vital skill for a lawyer, which only improves with practice.  Some questions will extract more information than others but phrased correctly can also be an effective way of controlling what information you receive (especially if you have a client who veers off on a tangent).

Questions are categorised into various different types, a couple of which will be discussed below.

  1. Open questions
  2. Closed questions
  3. Follow up questions

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Open Questions

Starting with an opening question is the most efficient way is to allow the client to tell you the facts in their own way, without interference.  It signals to them that you are interested in what they have to say.  Open questions at the beginning of an interview invariably start with either Who? What? Where? When? Why or How? and some suggestions include, how can we help you?  What brought you here today? Before your interview have some examples of open ended questions to hand and practice.

A client will most likely have planned what they want to say prior to the interview. Sometimes nerves can overtake thoughts and whilst an open question encourages discussion it can be ineffective with a client who wants to veer off topic.  So, consider narrowing your question slightly to allow the client to speak but with limited scope to ramble, for example, can you briefly tell me why you are here today?  Can you give me a brief overview of the problem? Be careful not to assume that a client will automatically ramble, and interject to gain control of the interview, before giving your client a chance to respond.

On occasions, even asking an open-ended question will not extract the information you need, if the client is not very forthcoming.  Do not be afraid to politely remind the client  you want to help them and would like them to be as open and honest as they can, to enable you to advise them to the best of your ability.

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Closed Questions

A closed question can be answered with a single word or a very short phrase and are commonly used when you are seeking to clarify information.

  • What time of the day did that happen?
  • Who else was in the car?

Some benefits of closed questions are they can be used to give you basic facts, are easy to answer and allow you to keep control of the interview but it can be very easy to bombard a client with short, sharp closed questions which will not allow you to gather much information, if they are used too early in an interview.

Use closed questions when you want to clarify details to validate your understanding of the situation.

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Follow up questions

A follow up question is mainly used to seek clarification on the issue raised, following an open question.  They are narrow in focus and seek a short, limited response and are a good way of building rapport by demonstrating to your client that you are listening to what is being said.  Be careful not to move into follow up questioning too early, it tends to lead straight into the next steps and you may miss important details if the client thinks you have all the information you need.

 

What I learnt

Questioning was one skill I developed the most throughout the competition.   In the beginning I was too worried about getting to the root of the problem and so quick to progress, without truly taking the time to listen to the client.  This part of the interview is a great way of slowing down a little to make sure you fully understand the problem before progressing to advice.  I was often the person who took notes when we interviewed and the temptation to interject and ask what I was thinking was immense, but a client wants to know that you are listening to what they are saying, not interrupting.  Build a rapport and they will more likely tell you everything, rush and you will miss things.

Ask one question at a time, make them as simple as possible and give your client time to answer.

 

**Its the last week for law schools to enter so do not forget to remind your tutors**  

I hope you are all enjoying your time in the competition. The training day will be here before you know it!

Good luck!

 

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Interview Plan

Interview plan

An interview can be an intimidating prospect to a client who has never stepped through the doors of a law firm. The client is looking for you to deal with their problem efficiently and professionally and to accomplish this it helps to follow an interview plan.

However, whilst having a structure in place is great, it is easy to sound scripted and any deviation will unsettle you.  Bullet points will act as a reminder, allowing you to speak naturally without constantly looking down at a sheet of paper (yes your hair might look great but the client doesn’t want to see the top of your head for 30 mins).

The grading criteria for the competition will help you plan an interview but if you are unsure what structure to follow here are some helpful tips.  (This is by no means comprehensive but will give you a basic understanding)

Prepare the room

Prior to the client entering the room set the scene.

  • Where are you all going to sit? It can sometimes feel like a job interview if you are sitting two facing one, so are there any other options?
  • Have you got any refreshments?

Introduce yourself

Make sure you are standing when your client enters the room and introduce yourself and your partner.

  • A good handshake (do not cut off the circulation or have a limp hand),
  • Small talk (not the weather or if they got there ok but not over-familiar)
  • Remembering to say their name (if you know it).
  • Don’t forget the little details! Let them sit before you do and make sure your client is comfortable.

Setting the scene

A client is often very anxious so advise them what they can expect from the initial interview, it will alleviate some nerves.  It also reminds you what you need to cover;

  • Basic client information and/or clarifying any details you already have.
  • Are there any time constraints?
  • Has their ID been checked?
  • Is there any potential conflict of interest?

Professional standard requirements

Any interview must demonstrate your knowledge of professional conduct standards, such as;

  • Legal professional privilege (remember to avoid legal jargon)
  • Costs (do not be afraid to tell your client what your fees are, they will be expecting to pay for a good service)
  • What happens to recordings when the interview is being videoed

Question time

Once all the professional requirements have been discussed it is time to establish how you can help. Most people are familiar with types of questions but if you are unsure you should start by asking the client an open question.

  • Closed questions invite one-word answers
  • Open questions will give a person an opportunity to explain their issue. For example;
    • Can you tell me about what brought you here today?
    • Can you give me an overview of what your issue is?

Do not be afraid to interrupt a client who is going off on a tangent.

  • Take control – it is your interview and you need the best information you can obtain from the client to advise them to the best of your ability.
  • Creating a chronology of events will benefit you in the recap.

Documentation

If a client gives you a whole raft of documents, it is easy to become flustered. Realistically you do not have time to read large documents during the interview.  It is perfectly acceptable to advise the client you will have to examine documents thoroughly after the interview to ensure you are giving them correct advice.

  • For smaller documents one partner can be reading whilst the other continues to ask questions (check that you can keep the documents before you write on them – yes I didn’t ask).

Expectations

You may think you know what resolution the client expects, but the chances are you don’t.

  • Asking what the client wants to achieve will help tailor your preliminary advice.
  • It will demonstrate your ability to manage a client’s expectations.

 

Recap

Check, check and check again.  Then check some more.  Ok, so not that much but enough to make sure you have demonstrated you have a good understanding of the problem

  • Ask the client if they have any other information that is relevant.

Client advice

Feeling like you are being put on the spot is a daunting prospect but do not over-prepare.

  • Remind the client that you will provide preliminary advice and full written advice will follow. An understanding is good but remember the competition is about your ability to interview a client, not what your knowledge of the law is.

Give options but do not promise to change the world, be realistic.

  • Remember, if you do not know the answer, do not make it up or guess! It is better to tell them you will need to check the issue than give incorrect information.

What happens next?

Effectively ending an interview is just as important as the start.  The client needs to leave knowing what happens next.

  • What will you do now?
  • Is there anything you require from them?

 

Practice is key to any interview – be confident, believe in yourself and make sure you prepare!

 

Good Luck!