Client Interviewing in the HeLP Clinic

By: Mary Bostwick, Spring 2018 HeLP Legal Services Clinic Intern

One of my favorite aspects of studying and working in the legal field is interacting with clients. Prior to working in the HeLP clinic, I had never conducted an interview with a client, so I was thrilled a few weeks ago when I was given the opportunity to do so. Before the meeting, my partner and I were given a few tips by our supervisors to help the meeting go more smoothly, but there are some things you just learn through experience. I want to share three of the lessons I learned from my first client interview.

First, it is incredibly important to always allot much more time than you think you will need to conduct the interview or meeting. In life, things unexpectedly come up—the babysitter cancels at the last minute, a child becomes unexpectedly ill, traffic is more congested than usual, the car won’t start, or the busses are running late. Each of these can lead to a client arriving late, and each of these is entirely beyond the control of the client. Sometimes, the client will even have to cancel the meeting altogether. This is just an unavoidable aspect of trying to coordinate schedules. On the day of my meeting, my client was almost an hour late because she lived in a different city, was not familiar with the downtown area, and had a hard time finding parking. Luckily, my partner and I had given ourselves plenty of time to meet with our client, so the delay was not a major issue.

The second lesson I learned very quickly is that if a client’s child will be present during the meeting, it is always a good idea to have toys or games to keep him occupied. Children have very short attention spans and grow bored very quickly when doing things that do not capture their attention. Legal meetings can be extremely dull for children, and young children can become very fussy. During my meeting, a two and a half-year-old boy was present. Prior to the meeting, my partner and I prepared toys and coloring books for him to play with. When he saw the toys, the child’s eyes lit up and he behaved perfectly while entertaining himself for the two-hour meeting. We really needed his mother’s full attention during this interview, so it was imperative that she not be tending to a fussy child the entire time. Having the toys in the room absolutely aided us in having a successful and efficient interview.

The third important lesson I learned during my initial interview is that if the client’s legal issue is health related, it is a good idea, if possible, to have a medical professional present. Most law students and lawyers do not have backgrounds in medicine. This can be problematic when the legal issue revolves around a certain disease or illness. Particular medications, dosages, procedures, or hospitalizations can be key to a case, and if a legal professional does not know to ask certain questions, a client could be disadvantaged. Fortunately for clients of the HeLP clinic, we have medical students working in our office. These students have nearly completed medical school and are available to clinic attorneys and students for consultations and advice. Additionally, these students often sit in on client interviews. In my meeting, I was fortunate to have one of the medical students in attendance. He was very helpful in that he asked questions regarding hemoglobin levels and lab reports. These were questions that I had not thought to ask at the time, but proved to be very useful later on. It is also a good idea to have a medical student attend the initial interview because later on when the student reviews the file, he will have an understanding of the whole picture and not just the words on the pages of the file.

I believe the three lessons I learned during my first initial client interview can be useful for any interview conducted within the HeLP clinic. I am grateful for this experience in the clinic because it has helped build my client interviewing skills and reinforced my communication skills, both of which are necessary tools for any successful attorney.