Client Interviews and Legal Literacy

By: Elizabeth Wedegis, Spring 2017 Intern

During my semesters in the Health Law Partnership (HeLP) Legal Services Clinic, I participated in several interview role plays where another student played a client. These role plays were invaluable in becoming comfortable with the interview process and learning to think on my feet. What they could not simulate, however, was a real client’s legal literacy. The more experienced an attorney gets, the less they can relate to a non-lawyer’s knowledge level of the law. Even after only three years of law school, I found myself assuming potential clients know more than I did before studying the law.

Unfortunately, non-lawyers believe they should understand and, therefore, may not express their questions even when prompted; instead, they may just nod along and fall even further behind in the explanation of their legal issues. When helping a client write her Will, for example, it is particularly important to ensure the client understands the process because she will likely not be around when an issue arises. Wills are instrumental to ensure clients’ wishes are correctly carried out after they pass away, but Wills also include difficult language for clients to understand. If a client is not comfortable enough to ask questions, she may find the process frustrating and clam up, creating a higher risk that what she wants will not be accurately carried out.

The client knows the facts of her case better than any record could portray. Without all the facts, the lawyer is preparing blind. To obtain all the information needed from the client, the lawyer must explain why she needs the information. For example, individuals often do not realize how much responsibility executing a Will entails. A client may understand the broad powers given to an executor and, therefore, know to pick someone she trusts. However, she may not know to consider a potential executor’s intelligence and responsibility as well. An executor must be willing to work with accountants, lawyers, and other professionals to carry out a client’s wishes. The executor must also be responsible enough to complete all instructions in the Will. Through reports and bonds, a client can protect themselves against a careless executor, but that comes with a higher burden and more work on the executor’s shoulders. A client must know everything being an executor entails before determining which people in her life would be suitable.

To reach the best outcome in a legal issue, the lawyer and client must trust each other. The best way to build a foundation for that trust is to ensure the client understands the process. Though many lawyers and clients may want to jump right into the question portion of an interview, it is important to always provide the client with a roadmap of what will happen during the interview. This can lower the client’s unease about the meeting and give the client back some control over her legal issues. Through this foundation of openness, a lawyer can start a trusting relationship with her client. Trust can help a client become comfortable enough to ask questions about parts of the legal process she does not understand, which helps the client make better decisions and helps the lawyer correctly carry out the client’s wishes.