Creating a Better Initial Client Interview

Initial client interviews are important for a lot of reasons. Here are two ways you can create a better initial interview no matter which side of the desk you are on.

Understand the Purpose of the Interview

Understanding the why of something can greatly influence the what and the how. As for initial client interviews, “[t]he purpose … is to obtain as much information in respect to the situation presented by the client … [and] to sell the attorney’s services.” By moving from an unstructured and reactive interview to one that is pointed and planned, both clients and attorneys can save substantial time and money.

As suggested by the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the initial meeting of client and attorney is a “mutual evaluation.” Clients will decide whether to use the services of the attorney and the attorney will decide whether to take the case. As the fact gatherer, an attorney’s purpose during the initial interview can be broken down into five functions:

  • Determine the goals of the client,
  • Identify options for action in the case that correspond to the client’s goals,
  • Establish the attorney-client relationship and the scope of the representation,
  • Determine fees, and
  • Set a short/long range agenda for the case.

AILA, Initial Interviews at 27.

While being overly reliant on a set formula or checklist can lead to missing key facts or issues, going into an initial interview with a plan will lead to better fact gathering and stronger attorney-client relationships.

Taming Communication Barriers

Language barriers can arise in any legal setting, not just immigration law. That said, immigration attorneys must be prepared to discuss complex situations with prospective clients who may speak a different language. Be sensitive to the culture, religion, and language of the prospective client. Keep your foot out of your mouth by avoiding stereotypes. Simply being conscious of one’s own assumptions and biases can make a big difference in how the interview turns out.

The better an attorney can understand a client’s viewpoint, the better she can manage and meet the client’s expectations. Before going to law school, I worked for a financial institution that specialized in medical savings accounts. Being bilingual, I received many clients that were new to the United States and completely unfamiliar with the American health care system. The American legal system can be equally as complex to someone with little to no foundation experience. Understanding where I needed to begin with such individuals was a powerful tool in respecting the client’s autonomy and in helping them make informed decisions.

“Even if the attorney and the client speak the same language, there still may be communication difficulties.”

AILA, Initial Interviews at 30.

Vocabulary can also be a communication barrier. The first year of law school contains an implicit crash course in the language of the law. Combine this with a bilingual environment and misunderstandings are sure to arise. Country of origin, socioeconomic status, and age can all play a factor in an intake interview. A word or phrase in one country can mean something completely different in another. Despite the complexity that comes with conducting an interview in another language, a careful attorney can avoid any major pitfalls by being “attentive to nonverbal cues that indicate that the client may have misunderstood.”

Additional Resources

By thinking more about why initial interviews are conducted and who the people are that are being interviewed, the efficacy of initial client interviews will improve. For additional tips on initial interviews, check out the following:

  • S. Krieger and R. Neumann, Essential Lawyering Skills: Interviewing, Counseling, Negotiation and Persuasive Fact Analysis (4th Ed. 2011).
  • S. Parsons, Interviewing and Investigating: Essential Skills for the Legal Professional (4th Ed. 2010).
  • “Recognizing and Dealing with Professional Responsibility Issues Arising in Initial Legal Consultations,” 18 Creighton L. Rev. 1461 (1985). 

Work Cited

Stephen Yale-Loehr & Kristal Ozmun, Initial Interviews, NAVIGATING THE FUNDAMENTALS OF IMMIGRATION LAW 27 (Jill Marie Bussey et al. eds., 2013-14).