Legal Interviewing Skills Guide
Client interviewing is one of the most important skills required of a lawyer, yet law students rarely spend much time practising it.
About this resource
This section provides you with the opportunity to develop this practical skill in an applied context.
Try it yourself! Imagine a client is arriving at your office in ten minutes time. What should your main objectives in interviewing them be?
A legal interview has three key aims:
- establishing an effective relationship with the client
- identifying the nature of the client's problem
- obtaining enough information from the client to reach a potential solution.
An interview should have a logical sequence and structure without being too rigid. There should be flexibility to allow the client to be treated as an individual with a unique set of issues, rather than just a legal problem. Remember that an effective client interviewing technique will create a positive atmosphere between you and the client.
An interview is not the same as a conversation: it has a specific purpose. In an initial interview this purpose is to identify the nature of the client's problems. A client will outline the nature of his or her problem and the effective interviewer will probe for the salient information. Remember, that ultimately it is the client who gives instructions! In a legal context, a lawyer should be able to give options.
The need for empathy
Empathy is difficult to define but essentially involves the interviewer attempting to understand the client's experience and the implications for them. Empathy is developed by effective interviewing skills. Remember that you will interview people from across the social spectrum, some of who may have acted in a way you morally disagree with. As a lawyer it is not for you to judge the client. You must make your verbal and body language reflect this non-judgmental stance.
Top tip: Empathy not sympathy — you do not need to feel sorry for the client, just understand their situation and their needs.
It is impossible to give good advice without having first listened to your client. Listening is actually quite difficult to do effectively as it involves deep mental analysis of what you have heard. Effective listening therefore involves not only hearing what is being said, but noting the way in which things are said, and the body language displayed while it is being said.
You should try to evaluate the behaviour of the client as they speak. Are they nervous, apprehensive, fidgety or speaking too quickly? If so, try to calm them down. Are they reluctant to open up and reveal information? If so, try to reassure them and encourage them to share their thoughts. Are they spending too much time focusing on irrelevant points? If so, try to steer them onto the important matters.
Your own behaviour is also important. Think about what you are doing when the client is speaking. Are you showing interest, or looking bored? Make sure you avoid looking down or away, glancing at your watch, or doodling on your pad.
Top tip: Silence can be an effective way of reflecting on what has been said.
Try it yourself!
- Get together with one other person. Allow them to talk about any subject they want for five minutes. Listen attentively, without interruption.
- When they have finished, you then speak for five minutes about any subject. However, this time, instruct your ‘listener’ to display inattentive behaviour while you speak. They could, for example fidget, look out the window, or drum their fingers on the table.
- Discuss: How easy/difficult was it to talk? How did the body language demonstrated by the ‘listener’ affect this? How did people use body language to demonstrate their emotions? Did either of you make any mental notes of non-verbal behaviour? Did you make those mental notes only of the other person? Or of yourself too?
Try it yourself!
- Find at least one other person to join your group.
- Take it in turns to retell the information you had each been told in the first task to this newcomer.
- Discuss: How easy/difficult was it to retell the information? How did the body language of the listener in the first task affect this? Were you selective in what you retold? If so, why? If you had to mark each other for accuracy of the retold story, how many marks out of 100 would you award each other? Where were marks lost? What could you do to help retell the story more accurately?
Top tip: The answer to the last discussion point above usually involves taking notes when listening, or asking questions/seeking clarification from the speaker. These are both good ways of helping you gain more from listening.
Often clients will present information in a disorganised or incoherent manner. Questioning allows you to probe a little more about the issues raised by the client.
Top tip: Different clients have different ways of presenting information. For example, a business client might behave very differently to a ‘high street’ client.
Effective questioning obtains the information you need in order to provide the client with full and informed advice, so that they can make the right decisions about the action they wish you to initiate on their behalf.
Top tip: Paraphrasing or summarizing information is a useful way of highlighting areas where further information or evidence is required.
Try it yourself!
Summarise, in no more than 50 words each, the following types of questions. Give an example of each:
Try it yourself!
- Get together with one other person. One of you takes Client Scenario A. The other takes Client Scenario B.
- Take it in turns to act as the lawyer and the client in each scenario. It is up to the ‘client’ how much of the scenario they reveal to the ‘lawyer’. Bear in mind that they are seeking legal advice, but may also be sensitive about sharing confidential information pertaining to their life.
- The ‘lawyer’ may want to use some of the techniques already discussed (for example, questioning or making notes) to help structure the interview.
- When you have run through both scenarios, discuss the techniques you both employed to make the interview effective: What types of questions worked best in what situations? Did you note non-verbal clues? How might you do things differently next time?
The overall purpose of a legal interview is to enable your client to reach a decision as to which course of action they wish to pursue. By combining the results of listening and questioning, you should be able to identify what the client's problem is and what potential solutions are available.
Remember, though, that your role is advisory, that is, to put those potential solutions before the client, but leave it to them to ultimately decide which course of action they wish to pursue.
Top tip: Remember that legal action is not the only necessary course of action in every case.
Try it yourself!
List three different actions a client could potentially take which do not involve the law.
A client can only make the correct decision if the advice is clear, so make sure you:
- avoid jargon
- explain in layman's terms
- summarise all the options again if necessary.
Clients may worry about how much it will all cost, including your fees, so you should also discuss these with them. The other major worry for clients is not knowing what is happening. Never mislead a client into thinking that everything is alright when it is not. Although you do not want to frighten an already distressed client, you must be honest in your appraisal of the situation.
Try it yourself!
- Use the same scenarios and roles as above (Client Scenario A and Client Scenario B).
- Take turns to advise your client on the possible options available to them.
- When you have run through both scenarios, discuss the techniques you both employed. From the client's point of view: Did you feel reassured after your interview with the lawyer? Were you aware of questioning in a particular manner? Did the questioning affect the interview? What were each person's objectives? Were those objectives ultimately met? What did you make of the lawyer's advice? Was the advice legal or non-legal? Were you given choices?
OUTLINE INTERVIEW PLAN
- Welcome the client. Greet, seat and introduce yourself. Make sure the client is comfortable.
- Create an effective working environment. Make sure there will be minimal interruptions: switch off telephones, and tell others not to disturb you during the interview.
- Encourage the client to put forward his or her perceptions.
- Listen, without interrupting, if at all possible.
- Remember that listening also involves noting non-verbal communications.
- Reflect on what you are being told, through paraphrasing and questioning.
- Question more deeply to establish salient facts, clarify ambiguities and check relevance.
- Summarise your findings.
- Allow the client the chance to ask questions, clear doubts or express anxieties.
- Outline the options, both legal and non-legal.
- Assist the client in making an informed choice of action.
- Take instructions.
- Explain any follow up to be undertaken by the lawyer, including costs involved.
- Confirm that the client agrees to the course of action.
- Check if there is any other business.
- Provide an idea of timescales.
- Say goodbye and show the client out.
Download this Outline interview plan.
Top 10 tips for legal interviewing success:
- Legal interviewing is not just about obtaining information. It helps establish an effective relationship with the client.
- Plan your interview, but leave enough flexibility and time for the client to be treated as an individual with a unique set of issues.
- Show empathy, rather than sympathy, with the client's situation.
- Pay attention to your behaviour when the client is speaking. Stay attentive and interested.
- ‘Listen’ to the non-verbal signals the client sends out as well as the words they say.
- Clarify what the client tells you by paraphrasing or questioning.
- Use silence to help you reflect on what has been said.
- If necessary, take notes to help you remember key information.
- Offer potential solutions to the client, but let them decide which course of action to pursue.
- Listen to the client's worries. Be clear about fees and timescales.
Client Interviewing Competition for England and Wales
Law Society Initial Interview practice note for solicitors
Louis M Brown International Client Counselling Competition
Oklahoma Bar Association on the initial client interview