Practice tip: Talking to clients
Posted on December 29th, 2010
To those of you in law school, who are starting to suspect that the academics who never practiced law really aren’t cut out to teach you how to be a lawyer: you are right. There are a few gems among the faculty: find them. Pick their brains. Because eventually, you will be face to face with clients in your office – real, live clients – and you will be thinking, “Holy crap, no one taught me how to do this!”
Actually, no one can teach you how to talk to clients. You learn by doing. But I figured I’d give it a shot – and unlike your law school education, this doesn’t cost you anything. (Disclaimer: and might not be worth much, either.)
Listen, don’t talk. Ask, “What brings you here today?” Then shut up. Chances are the potential client will wander all over the place and you will have to focus the discussion, but listen. Take notes. If you talk more than you listen in that first meeting, you’re doing something wrong.
Ask questions. Get dates. Names. Places. From this information you can figure out important things like who the defendants are, if the statute of limitations has run, if you really want this case.
Ask awkward questions. The ones the case hinges on. There are so many WTF moments when you start practicing law, but one of my weirder ones was having to ask a teenage boy details about being molested. In front of his mom. (I kicked her out of the room, which helped some. Not much.) That just…yeah. Not fun. Eventually, I got pretty good at questioning teenagers. (It helped if they were emo and I talked first about the goth 80s concerts I’d gone to. I felt ancient, but do what works.)
Take a pass. If you aren’t sure about the case, the client, or if you have it in you to handle this case, either turn it down directly or take a day to think about it and get back promptly with a yes or no. If your gut feeling is “run as fast as you can” then turn it down directly.
As much as you might want to say, “I’m sorry, Mr. Jones, but we can’t take this because you have no jury appeal and defense counsel is just going to laugh when they read this complaint,” try this instead: “Thank you for coming in today, Mr. Jones. What happened to you was terrible. Unfortunately, we don’t have the resources/don’t have the time/are unable to take your case.”
Bonus Practice Tip: If the client is a complete whack job who has just wasted two hours of your time AND there is a lawyer in town that has been a complete dick to you, consider referring the whack job to the dick. (I can’t believe I just typed that sentence.) Keep a straight face. (Because what goes around, comes around.)