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1/8/2020 Assessment 4 – Client Interview | The Student Lawyer

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Assessment 4 – Client Interview

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Published by  Matt Carter at  December 31, 2012 Tags  Categories 

The client interview assessment is all about your face-to-face customer service
skills under the watchful gaze of the professional conduct rules. You are
expected to conduct an interview with a ‘client’ in order to obtain and convey the
information required without stepping outside of what you know or can do. The
information you obtain should be enough for you to take the next steps without
going back to the client for more. What you tell the client should cover off your
professional conduct and give a little advice regarding their situation.

The interview will be based in an area of law; for me, it was probate. You will be
expected to know enough about the law to be able to obtain the salient facts
from the client. You may also have been given some preparatory information to
guide you towards the correct advice to give.

However, the small amount of advice you will give is second to the professional
conduct skills. It is likely to be the first interview with the client (the least amount
of background and legal knowledge required), which means there is a lot of
professional conduct stuff to be covered.

 Client interviewing is one of the easier practical skills; after all, it is only a 
conversation. However, it is often one of the exams that students get most
nervous about. Being put in front of a client and told to think on the spot is quite

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daunting; especially if this is the first time you will be speaking in person to a
customer. It is also a little of the unknown – your provider is likely to use an actor
to play the part of the client for the exam and the unfamiliar face can put people
off. It is easy to get caught up in the legal aspects of the advice you will be giving
and all the theory of what makes a good interview and to forget that in fact it is
just that, a conversation.

A quick tip regarding interviewing styles, which if you haven’t heard of already,
you will do by the time you qualify: open and closed questioning. Open questions
allow more than one word answers, for example: ‘What happened?’, ‘Could you
explain a little of the background please?’, ‘How can I help today?’ Closed
questions allow very limited answers, even down to just a yes or no, such as:
‘What date did it happen?’, ‘Where do you live?’, ‘Do you have insurance?’ Open
questions are good to get the client talking and to get the conversation flowing
whereas closed questions get the details out. A good interview technique is to
start with open questions and slowly narrow down to closed until you have the
information you need.

If you go down a line of questions that doesn’t go anywhere, back up and ask a
more open question. It’s fairly easy to say but can be quite difficult in practice,
especially when you are aware you need to get certain bits of information to
provide advice. It is worth knowing that there is a piece of information that the
client will be instructed to give you only if it comes out through your questioning.
If you ask only closed questions, it is unlikely you will ask the right one for it to
come out; you need some open questions for the client to talk his way into giving
it away.

In my opinion, the best way to conquer the nerves and to get everything you
need is to have a good handle on what is going to happen. Yes, you can’t control
what your client is going to say but it is your interview, so it can be guided in
whatever way you wish. Having a planned structure to the conversation will help
you get what you need, control the client to what you need them to say.

For a first interview, I would suggest a structure along the

following lines:

1.   Introduce yourself and explain a little about what will happen during the
interview: ‘I am going to ask you a few questions about the situation to get some
information about the background. I may take some notes while you talk, please
don’t worry.’ Explain the stages of the interview. This puts the client at ease and
helps you take control. You could even offer the client a cup of tea or a drink.

2.  Ask the general questions – name, address, contact details. You might have
been given this already, but you should check it is correct. There are two reasons
for this – one for accuracy and the other to check you are speaking to the right
person. This also leads into the interview nicely and gives you a chance to calm
down before getting on to the meat of the interview.
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3.  Ask some easy, open questions about the situation. Explain what you know:
‘You explained to my supervisor on the phone that x has happened. I would be
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grateful if you could just take me through it again.’ Try to let the client talk, you
can go back and ask questions when they have finished. Keep asking open
questions until it seems like they have finished. Take notes of everything (not

4.  Go back and clarify any details you need to with closed questions – have the
legal aspects in the back of your mind when you are thinking about this. Ask if the
client has any paperwork he could bring in, if applicable.

5.  Ask the most important question – ‘Is there anything else that might be
relevant you could tell me?’ This question should allow him to tell you that bit of
information he is keeping back if you have missed it earlier.

6.  Give your advice. Try to stick to only that which you can be certain of. You can
always clarify what you are saying in the following way: ‘I think x but I will clarify
with my supervisor and get back to you as soon as possible.’ If you have gone
blank, just say ‘I will ask my supervisor about that and get back to you.’

7.  Confirm the next steps – both for you and the client. You will likely have to
discuss with your supervisor and confirm your advice in writing by the end of the
week – either by letter or by email. Your client might have paperwork to bring in
(remember money laundering – passport and proof of address) or a piece of
information to confirm to you. If he doesn’t have anything to do, tell him that you
will get in touch with him and will let him know then the next steps.

8.  Ask ‘Is there anything else I can help you with today?’ Hopefully nothing, but it’s
one last chance for him to tell you something he hasn’t already. If not, it’s a good
way of ending the interview.

This structure is easy to follow and should elicit all the information you need. Try
not to script yourself; it will be easy to spot if you are rehearsed and you will be
lost if something unexpected happens. However, it is worth a bit of advanced
planning. You can take some paper in with you to take notes with – if you write
your key questions on here in advance, it will remind you but also will allow you to
take fewer notes, e.g. if you have written ‘date of birth’ already, you will only need
to write the actual date in the interview. Similarly, a good attendance note will
have the date, attendees, time, file number etc. You will know this in advance;
why not get it down before you go in.

There will be some client care issues, some which could catch
you out and you should try to cover them all, should they arise:

You are a trainee. You should let the client know your position and that you
are being supervised, ideally at the start of the interview. This isn’t difficult to
slip in; ‘My name is X. I am a trainee in the X department. I understand you
spoke to my supervisor, Mr X, earlier in the week about…’

Costs. You will get brownie points if you cover this element in any interview
 but it is important to raise in an initial interview. I would suggest one of three 

approaches: 1. You confirm your supervisor has already discussed the costs;
2. This is a free 30 minute interview and if the client wishes to proceed, your

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supervisor will discuss costs then; or 3. The client has been sent a client care
letter setting out costs and you confirm he is happy to proceed on that basis.
Any one of these allows you to raise costs without actually talking figures –
mention of numbers will get you into a tricky area, for instance, do you mean
per hour, or flat fee? Is that for your time or your supervisor’s or both? Is it
excluding or including VAT? Is it just for your fees or are the disbursements
included? It is much easier not to get into that territory in the first place.

Who the client is. This is a curve-ball professional conduct issue that happens
quite a lot in practice; the ‘client’ comes in but it turns out he is there on
behalf of his mother, who is too old to come in herself. I am not sure if this will
happen in the interview assessment, as it is a little harsh. However, you should
be prepared and if it is the case, you should close down the interview and
explain you need to speak to the mother herself. You can only take
instructions from the client direct and shouldn’t discuss matters with third
parties unless you have express permission. If the ‘client’ claims he has
permission, explain you will need to check with your supervisor first and that
you are under a duty of confidentiality. You may be able to safely provide
generic advice about process, e.g. what happens in probate, but don’t give
anything specific.

Managing client expectations. This is a biggie – the client should know when
he leaves the interview room what you are going to do, what he needs to do
and how long the next step will take. It is very important you are clear who is
going to contact who next and you must be certain about anything the client
needs to do before you next contact them.

Ability. You shouldn’t give any advice you are not competent to give, i.e. don’t
bullshit. If you don’t know something say you will have to check with your
supervisor, don’t try to bluff. Admitting you don’t know is much better than
getting it wrong. You will lose marks for bad advice.

Conflicts. If it is an initial interview, it may be that you will need to do conflict

checks before you proceed to act for the client. This should have been done
before you meet for the first time but it might be that information hasn’t yet
been provided to you. If you come across a situation where a conflict might
arise, you should close the interview down and explain you need to carry out
a conflict check before going any further. If they ask why, explain that you
may already act for the other party and will be under a duty to them. You
could pretend to ask your secretary to run a conflict check that comes back
clear and then continue with the interview if you wish or simply say that you
will call the client later on to continue once the checks have been run. Again I
am not sure if this will come up during the assessment but you should be
prepared for everything.

Preparation is key for the interview – having your thoughts clear about what you
need to ask and what is going to happen will really help you to get through the
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conversation. In practice, trainees attend interviews but don’t conduct them so
they are not expecting miracles. That’s not to say the skills aren’t used – they

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come very handy on the phone to clients – it’s just that you are unlikely to be put
in the situation again any time soon.

The thing to remember is that you have only a few boxes to tick and you are not
being graded on your knowledge of the law. I know from experience that you can
tick all the boxes without being a walking dictionary. My interview scenario was
that the client’s aunt had died, the client was named executor under the will and
some of the named beneficiaries were dead. Most of my year worked out
whether the will was valid and who should benefit, etc. and gave quite detailed
advice relating to probate law. My friend asked if the funeral had been held yet (it
hadn’t), told the client that money from the aunt’s bank account could be
released to pay for it, that the will could wait a week for him to be with his family
and that she would give him a ring in 10 days to arrange another meeting. In and
out in five minutes with full marks. Just goes to show that it is your skills that are
being assessed, not you demonstrating your knowledge of law!

Next week I will be looking at Completion in Property Law and Practice.

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Matt Carter

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