Preparing for Your First “Client” Interview

By: L. Danielle Tully

Dear 1L,

You and I both know that the person you are about to interview isn’t a “real” client.  This is an imaginary legal playground of my design.  I made up a story, a legal dilemma without any clear answer, and I have anointed you lawyer.  But suspend disbelief for just a moment or two. It’s worth it.  You’ll get back what you put in.

You have heard me say this before, but there is no “right” way to interview a client.  There are common goals to every interview like establishing rapport, building trust, and getting the information you need.  But no two lawyers will go about reaching these goals in the same way.  That being said, an effective client interview requires a number of competencies: interpersonal skills, listening and comprehension, attention to detail, legal and factual analysis, and time management (just to list a handful).  Key to each of these competencies is knowing yourself first.

So before you review the intake call notes or begin to draft a client interview plan, turn the spotlight on yourself for a moment.  Taking a personal inventory before you begin will help you to develop a client-centered approach to interviewing, problem-solving, and counseling.  Take stock of your preferences and aversions.  Both negative and positive associations impact our ability to listen and to communicate.  Think about the last time you tried to understand a perspective different from your own.  How did it go? What would you do differently?  Take some time to practice active listening. This is where you validate and encourage the person speaking while also analyzing what the person is saying.  Listening is the most important tool in your toolbox when trying to learn about your client’s goals.  Listening to understand is tough! You have to hear, comprehend, analyze, and respond all while projecting an open trust-building affect. It takes a lot of practice and an open mind.  You won’t get even close to your goal in this first interview.  But, that is not the point.  The point is to take the leap: to learn.

Approach this “client” interview as a four-phase endeavor.  First, take a personal inventory.  Second, plan the interview.  Think about who your client is and what you know about his or her goals.  Draft an interview plan that incorporates the information you hope to gather with what you have learned about yourself as a person and as a lawyer-to-be.  Third, do the interview.  In the best-case scenario this interview will be video-recorded.  Finally, critique the interview.  Pay particular attention to those competencies listed above.  Don’t be too hard on yourself, though.  Instead, pick a couple of things that you want to improve and then take steps to do this.  Even though it might be awhile before your next opportunity, the skills for client interviewing are life skills that you can practice every day.

By following these four steps, you will get the most out of the simulation.  And, even though this isn’t a real client, the framework you are building will help you in future (and real) interactions.

Best,

Your Legal Practice Skills Professor