You usually have one hour to sell yourself to prospective clients during the initial consultation. The key is to communicate your genuine understanding of and concern for the client’s feelings. Building the proper relationship will help secure new clients, referrals, and friends.
After 10 years in the school of hard knocks and 20 of high volume practice, I wish I could say I never met a client I didn’t like. Years as a public defender and bankruptcy lawyer brought me every imaginable type of client. I didn’t like them all, but I did treat each with respect, so that the few with abrasive personalities left my office enjoying the compassion the others earned.
As attorneys we need to remember that most people who come to us are ashamed, scared, confused, and intimidated, and many are angry or even paranoid. Some have become passive, no longer taking steps to protect their best interests. Some are in legal trouble because of mental or emotional disabilities.
In short, many would-be clients admit their problems are beyond their control and reluctantly see no solution other than to pay for legal help, even though their means are limited. Too many have reached the point of desperation before visiting a lawyer.
Sitting behind our line of demarcation – our desks – we can avoid the compassionate interaction these people need, but not without their perceiving our callousness. They know which lawyers care and which are condescending. Lawyers who communicate to prospective clients that they are too busy to care often find their client pool dwindling.
Don’t let this happen to you. Here are ways to demonstrate caring and compassion as you interact with scared and vulnerable people.
Before the interview
Icebreakers. You can put your prospective client at ease by how your office is decorated and arranged. Paintings, photographs, objects d’art – whatever you choose can take the edge off the interview when either of you mention them.
Most law offices ask prospective clients to complete a “client information sheet” before the meeting. Never fail to read that information beforehand. When you say, “You work at Acme Industries, don’t they make car batteries there?” your prospective client is comforted knowing you cared enough to read what he labored to write and that you know something about his life. That can set the tone for the rest of your representation.
Watching the clock (without seeming to). As interviews progress you have to be aware of your next interview. A client who is kept waiting will become predisposed against you. Many people take offense at your glancing at a watch, clock, or the time on your computer monitor during their interview. An easy solution is to position a wall clock directly above your line of sight while you look at your prospective client as he is seated during the interview.
When you carry one interview over into the time allotted for another, excuse yourself, telling the person in your office that you have another interview scheduled now. Step out into the waiting room and greet the next person, apologizing that the current interview is running longer than you expected but that if he can wait a few minutes, you will give him all the time he needs. (Wouldn’t it be nice if the medical profession did that?)
Kids. Many prospective clients will bring children, and there is no easier way to lose a client than to be disrespectful to their kids in your office – even if they’re driving you crazy. More than once I have had people come to see me simply because their previous lawyer failed to respect their children.
If you need to quiet an unruly child in your office, have your secretary enter and say it’s hard to hear clients on the phone. And keep a coloring book and crayons, a quiet handheld video game, or other toys that children of various ages can use to fill those 60 minutes that to a child seem like 60 hours.
Know when to take control. Too many attorneys’ unspoken orientation toward clients is, “Sit down, be quiet, I’ll ask the questions, you answer them quickly so I can get to the next client.” The prospective client, of course, has practiced for days what she plans to say and thinks if you just listen to her everything will be fine. The proper approach is somewhere in between.
Don’t take over the conversation from the beginning. Treat her like a human being, not a set of facts. Work to create a mutual respect that requires each conversant to participate. Usually the prospective client needs the catharsis of telling her story. Let her explain for a few moments and be a good listener before you take control of the interview and begin collecting the information you need. You can use the cathartic moment to scan any documents she brings. Listen politely, skim the documents, and when the time is right, take control of the conversation.
Also, never stare at your computer monitor while your interviewee is telling his story. Even if you haven’t read today’s news or your client seems to have nothing to say, look at and listen to him.
Listen for ways to connect. Often the most memorable part of the interview is the serendipitous revelation of some fact that lets you two bond on a human level. If the prospective client likes horses or music or baseball and you share that interest, stop being a lawyer for a minute and talk about it.
This will help you in your ongoing relationship should it develop. You may not be able to recall all the details of a client’s case by hearing his name, but there is almost always something about him that sticks in your mind. Maybe it’s his line of work, what he wore to the initial interview, or some unusual fact he told you.
Whatever it is – whatever detail distinguishes him from others – record it in his file (e.g., “oilfield welder,” “baseball,” “Big Sur,” “son in prison”). However, don’t make any notes in your client’s file that you wouldn’t show to him or her. When you leave to use the copy machine, the client will sneak a look at the file. Find a way to memorialize your interview without being insulting.
Allow interruptions. I used to tell prospective clients that I would ask them a series of questions to fill in the blanks on my interview form and that if they would hold their questions till the end, I will probably have answered this but would do so if I haven’t. I have learned that when someone interrupts my questioning during the interview it’s probably for a good reason, and they might forget if they don’t interrupt.
Assign homework. You might be approached by the prospective client, especially in consumer and bankruptcy cases, who enters your office and tosses a big bag of opened and unopened letters on your desk, like a boss assigning a dirty job to an underling. You can politely ask him to take the papers home and put them in order – and be specific about the assignment. Tell him to assemble piles of letters from each source in reverse chronological order, with the most recent letters on the top and the oldest on the bottom, and paperclip or clamp each set of letters from each sender in separate groups.
Educate. You need to school your prospective client about some of the concepts essential to understanding your representation. Ask her if she is familiar with “the automatic stay” or “an adversary case” and when she gives you that blank stare, explain the concept clearly. If you can bring her up to par with your knowledge of the legal issues in the case, she might be more helpful. Do so without using jargon or legalese.
Can your client read? Eventually you will meet a prospective client who cannot read handouts you give him or documents he brings to your office. Once a client left my office building through a door clearly labeled, “exit only in emergency or siren will sound.” While turning off the siren I asked (rhetorically, I thought), “Can’t you read?” The client sheepishly said, “No sir.”
I now watch for cues that suggest a person may not read at a sufficient level to understand documents or phrases I make reference to, and, if he seems confused, I ask, “Do you read OK?” Phrasing the question that way isn’t demeaning, and has always been met with a kind reaction.
Concluding the interview
A graceful ending. You usually reach a point when the next client is scheduled and the current interviewee has used his time. You have two clients precariously balanced on their point of satisfaction. How do you proceed?
Have your secretary interrupt your consultation by knocking on your door and telling you another client has arrived. Let your interviewee know you only have a few minutes but that he can schedule another appointment to continue your discussion. Remember to visit your waiting client in person if you carry over, offering to give her another interview at a different time or all the time she needs if she waits.
Explain the options. Before concluding the interview, the prospective client will want you to tell him what to do. Remind him that the decision is his. Often at this point, I say that I once had a friend who was a bookie. He made a living by determining the probability of the outcome of sporting events. I say I see a great similarity between his work and mine.
Tell your prospective client her options, the advantages and liabilities of each, and your best prediction of the probability of success or failure. That’s the closest we can come to the empirical practice of law and quantifies our communication of the client’s alternatives.
Many people still, for a variety of reasons, want their attorney to tell them what to do and which alternative to choose. When it is clear that they can’t decide, I tell them that if they were my parent or sibling or child, that I would advise them to…and specifically offer them my guidance.
Make sure your prospective client knows exactly what the next step will be if he decides to engage you, how much it will cost, and what will happen after that. Estimate how long the process will take and warn about problems that might occur.
Many of us have concluded that it is better to underpromise and overdeliver. For most clients, it is dangerous to raise expectations. That said, sometimes a client’s worries and problems are so overwhelming that it is a lesser of evils to say, “Go home, take care of your personal problems and I’ll take care of the legal problem.”
Finally, tell the person that even though you keep very busy you will return her calls on whatever schedule you follow (e.g., within 24 hours). She will not want to be called by some stranger from your office to whom you delegate lesser tasks. Remember that during your representation, your calls may be the most important thing in your clients’ lives. They might literally sit by the phone awaiting your return calls, so do your best to reply immediately.
If your approach with prospective clients is, “Here’s what you have to do – do it now!” he or she may leave your office only to visit another lawyer who gives them the same legal advice but invites cooperation instead of demanding obedience.
Try to understand the people you serve. Get to know them as unique individuals. Recognize that client and attorney are two equal human beings. By choosing you as his counsel, the client recognizes your superiority in only one area – the law. By working together, the two of you can be more successful than either working alone.
Larry E. Lauterjung (firstname.lastname@example.org) has practiced law for more than 20 years, concentrating in high volume work with lower income clients in traffic, criminal, and bankruptcy law. For eight years he was director of Illinois’ largest multi-county probation district. He was a founding member of the ISBA Traffic Laws and Courts Section Council and a regular contributor of articles for that section’s newsletter and wrote and published two books, DUI for Illinois Drivers and the just-released DUI Law For Drivers, Illinois Edition.