The best time for gathering information from a new client is at the very start of the case.
In fact the first two or three interviews constitute the most important hours you will spend together. Ninety percent of all pertinent information will be gleaned in these meetings. Afterward, relationships become fixed and predictable, answers become rote, and insights get buried under the mountain of minutiae as the case progresses.
Here are some key considerations for your initial interviews. It is presented as a checklist for use in preparing your own intake and interview forms.
- Be on time for appointments.
- Greet the client professionally and warmly. First impressions count.
- Put the client at ease. Most people are unfamiliar with and intimidated by the legal system. The client is likely there because of some stressful event. Go out of your way to make the experience as pleasant as possible. Examples: offer them a beverage, meet them in a sitting area instead of in your formal office.
- Avoid interruptions. Hold all incoming calls. Prevent other people from coming into the interview room. Regardless of how large or small the case, it is most certainly a big deal to the client. Give it your undivided attention.
- Listen first. Hear the full story, in the client’s own words, before jumping in with questions or commentary.
- Be direct. Do not overcomplicate issues. Use plain English instead of legalese. Discuss the client’s situation in practical terms and lay out clear solutions.
- Do not overwhelm the client with too much information. Give them only as much as they can comprehend.
- Keep it short. Forty-five minutes is about the extent of one’s attention span. After that, words tend to go in one ear and out the other.
- Understand the client’s objective. Say them aloud so the client can confirm that you understand.
- Define the scope of your representation. Explain clearly what you can and cannot do for the client. If a referral is needed to some other professional (ex: psychiatrist, financial planner), say so.
- Be realistic. Explain the time and cost of legal cases. Urge the client to consider how this matter might affect other aspects of their life.
- Go over fees and billing. Explain the difference between legal fees and costs. Explain when representation begins and when it ends. Discuss the consequences of nonpayment of fees.
- Follow up the appointment with a written letter or contract of engagement/non-engagement or disengagement.
- Confidentiality. Make sure the client understands that everything revealed in the interview will remain secret.
Information To Collect
- Personal information. Name, address and contact information. Best method and times for contact. Family members if relevant.
- Work information. Employment history, if relevant. Businesses owned or managed.
- Financial information. Assure the client this will be kept confidential. Tax returns, if relevant.
- Witness names and addresses.
- Client’s history of litigation and experience with lawyers and the legal system.
- Criminal history, if relevant.
- Health and health history, if relevant.
- Details of the incident, in the client’s own words. Photographs, accident reports, witness statements, medical records and other evidence should be gathered.
Staying in Touch
- Return phone calls promptly.
- Communicate regularly and provide periodic status reports. Case updates are a great idea. Highlight new cases, developments and trends. Send out client newsletters and eblasts.
- Keep the client informed. Send copies of all correspondence, memoranda, pleadings, briefs and other important documents.
- Schedule individual meetings as needed.
- Do not delay delivering bad news. It won’t get better over time. Early notice allows time to defuse situations before they worsen.
- Treat the client as a case partner. Bring clients into strategy development and include them in decision-making. Remember – it is the client’s case.
- Ask how you are doing. Use client surveys and feedback forms. Conduct exit interviews and gather information on how you can improve clients’ experiences in the future.
- Document everything. This protects both you and the client.
- Get the work done within the promised time.
- Accomplish results. This is the bottom line.