Initial Client Contact
Before taking on a new client, you must:
- Decide if you have the necessary expertise to handle the case;
- Determine if there is a conflict of interest;
- Gather background information from your prospective client; and
- Conduct a careful intake interview.
Failure to know or properly apply the law accounts for many malpractice claims. When a prospective client seeks services which are outside your area(s) of expertise, you can avoid making a potentially costly mistake by declining their business.
After initial client screening but before undertaking representation of a client, a lawyer must also determine that there is no conflict of interest affecting that representation. This exercise is required, and failure to screen for potential conflicts of interest can result in legal malpractice suits. Use a simple card file or a sophisticated computer database to cross reference for additional and adverse parties. Do not rely on memory to provide you with a complete list of each and every client you have ever represented. The checklist provided in this publication can help identify possible conflicts of interest. Even if you decline to represent a prospective client, regardless of the reason, keep a file which includes the person's name, date of inquiry, nature of legal matter, and the reason for the declination.
Before agreeing to represent a client, you also will need to gather information. Among the following documents is a client intake sheet for basic information, an initial appointment confirmation letter, and a general information questionnaire for more comprehensive information.
Think of the best experience you have had being interviewed. Try to recall what made the experience positive. Comfortable surroundings, the interviewer seemed interested in you and what you had to say, no one tried to intimidate you or make you feel uncomfortable.
When you are interviewing, remember that most people are unfamiliar with the legal system and will be uneasy at best, frightened at worst. It is important to establish a good rapport early in the process. When making the initial contact, be sure to advise the client of who you are and your purpose.
Begin the interview with small talk if it makes the situation more comfortable, but do not make the client feel you are wasting their time. Physical surroundings are important. There should be no distractions like office phones ringing. Sit side by side or across from each other without invading each other's body space and without establishing barriers like desks.
Don't let note-taking become a distraction. Maintain good eye contact. Do not attempt to take down every word said. Instead, look for pertinent and relevant information. This is where your knowledge of the case is helpful.
Types of Questions
Open - Allows interviewer to talk, more information is given, more time-consuming, interviewer has minimum control. Example: Why don't you tell me everything you remember about the accident.
Closed - Requires yes/no; interviewer is in control; answers not as reliable; show inconsistencies. Example: Did you see the car run the red light?
Double-barreled - Requires more than one response; causes interviewee to lose train of thought. Avoid, because it tends to leave both of you confused. Example: Did you see the other car run the red light and how fast was it going?
Leading - Invites interviewee to answer one way or another; requires careful use; might use with children; best used for cross-examination of adverse party. Example: You did not see the car in the intersection as you approached, did you?
Use techniques such as nonverbal and verbally supportive communication, active and passive listening and body language. They influence the gathering of information. The interviewer should not adopt a hostile or confrontational stance. Nodding during the interview indicates your acceptance of the client's story. Verbal expressions of empathy can assist in bonding between you and the client.
Barriers To Effective Listening
Talking - You cannot effectively listen if you are doing all the talking.
Preparing to talk - You cannot effectively listen if you are mentally preparing what you are going to say.
Mentally arguing - You cannot effectively listen if you are mentally forming your argument. Also, you need to be objective in listening.
Preoccupation - Keep your mind on the subject at hand.
Impatience - Do not become frustrated by the speaker's slow speech or inability to make a point.
Poor environment - Do not become distracted by noise, people, or temperature. Take care of these distractions before interview begins.
Inattentiveness - Effective listening requires all your attention. You must try to absorb what the speaker says.
Mental or physical fatigue - Be "up" for the interview.
Failure to understand body language - Is the client sending a message with facial expressions or body language which is different than what is being told in words?
Outline For Interviewing
- Know the facts
- Be prepared
- Understand who you will be interviewing
- Educational background
- Location (safety)
- Tape recording the interview allows you to concentrate fully without writing everything down, but may intimidate the client or they may refuse.
- If taking notes, try to listen and then write. If necessary, read notes back to client and ask if accurate.
- Know the law
- It is important to understand the legal issues relevant to the investigation.
- Prepare in advance
- Use an interview form or write out questions in advance.
- Check off each question as you cover them.
- You may choose to categorize your questions:
- Relevant background information.
- Ask clients to tell you what happened in their own words.
- Ask specific questions about what the client has just told you.
- Verify or contradict information obtained from review of file, pleadings, depositions, other witnesses, parties.
- It may be helpful to visit the scene in order to visualize what the client is discussing.
- Contacting the client
- If not in your office, call ahead regarding convenient time and place.
- Making the client feel comfortable is the key, so go with their choice of location.
- Ask clients to think about what happened and begin making notes before you meet with them.
- Tape recording interview
- Special circumstances
- Young child
- Many interviews in one day
- Criminal activity
- Person interviewed may become party
- Helpful to fact-gathering
- Complicated facts
- One-on-one vs. group interview
- People may be more comfortable with someone else there.
- Due to the subject matter, they may prefer to tell you in private.
- A group situation gives other witnesses an opportunity to hear what others are saying and confirm story. But because of the location, logistics or witness fears, the group interview may work best.
- Also, if each person knows a small piece of the story, the group interview may put together an accurate picture in a shorter amount of time.
- Make the client comfortable
- Safe, comfortable, professional office
- Introduce yourself and your purpose
- Dress and act appropriately
- Don't be nervous; it will make the client uneasy and might raise doubts about your competence
- Display confidence and knowledge about the matter at hand
- Conducting the interview
- Vital statistics:
- Date of birth
- Telephone number
- Social Security number
- Employer's name, address and telephone number
- Names, addresses and telephone numbers of family and close friends
- Verify spelling of all names and street names
- Let clients tell the story in their own words
- Ask who, what, when, where, why, which and how.
- Ask if the client knows of additional witnesses.
- Have a list of questions with space to answer
- Check off each question as you go through the list.
- Use different colors of ink to differentiate questions you come up with as client talks, things to do after interview, etc.
- The difficult client
- Handle with tact.
- Be nice; stress importance of cooperation.
- Concluding the interview
- Anything else you can think of to tell me?
- Advise the client to contact you if something else occurs to them.
- Leave your business card with them.
- Tell the client you may contact them later if you think of any further questions.
- May need to have client sign statement or affidavit.
- Summarize information to client to make sure all is accurate.
- After client leaves, immediately dictate memo while notes, thoughts and impressions are fresh on your mind.
Initial Appointment Confirmation
Confirmation of Meeting with Prospective Client