There is no doubt about it, attorneys often come to rely on their paralegals to conduct client interviews. In fact, most of the lists that outline the responsibilities of paralegals include 'conducting interviews'. The National Association of Legal Assistants - Paralegals and most other paralegal - related organizations place the following item at the top of their list:
Conduct client interviews and maintain general contact with the client, so long as the client is aware of the status and function of the legal assistant, and the legal assistant works under the supervision of the attorney.
Having good, solid interviewing skills and technique is important and can help you gain leverage whether you are just starting out as a paralegal or have legal experience. The ability to interview clients is valuable enough that many campus and online paralegal programs include an Interviewing and Investigation course.
Here are a few basic interviewing tips that will help you as you prepare for and advance your paralegal career.
The Paralegal Interviewer
You’ve landed your first paralegal job, yay! Your supervising attorney then informs you that a client will be coming into the office that day for an initial interview. She’d like for you to sit in on the interview. There is a scheduling conflict and now the attorney has to be in court. Turns out you will conduct the interview by yourself. You suddenly become very nervous and unsure of whether you will be able to handle it...
You Can Do This!
1. Set The Tone
The first few minutes will set the tone of any interview. Therefore, if you start off on the wrong foot with your interviewee, it may be difficult to rebound.
Make sure to greet the interviewee warmly, smile, offer him/her a beverage, and engage in small talk. Inform your interviewee approximately how long the interview will last and the topics you wish to discuss during that time. Knowing what to expect will help the interviewee feel comfortable with you and ease his/her nerves or fear.
In order to conduct a successful interview, you must be prepared. This means researching the substantive law related to your case and reading through the file facts. Prior to the interview, you may want to prepare a list of questions or topics to discuss.
Be aware though, that this list serves as only a guide for you. You should not engage in a rigid series of Q&As. Rather, attempt to converse with the interviewee about the issues at hand. Getting into a dialogue helps the flow of the interview and with it, an increased amount of disclosure from your interviewee.3. Never Let ‘em See You Sweat
You might find it daunting to come face to face with someone you don’t know to discuss heavy legal issues. While it’s understandable that you’re nervous going into the interview, don’t let it get the best of you. Remember, you’re already prepared, so be confident. However, if you haven’t reached that level quite yet, feign it. In other words, fake it til’ you make it! Put on the appearance that you are confident, even if you are not, because confidence leads to control. If you are in control of the interview, you will be more focused on the task at hand.
4. Questioning Styles
The success of any interview is determined, partly, by the types of questions asked: open-ended and closed-ended.
- Open-ended questions allow the interviewee to offer a considerable amount of information. An example of an open-ended question is “tell me why you’re here.” You will usually start with this type of question since you’re trying to get a handle of the overall problem.
- Closed-ended questions, on the other hand, can be answered with a short response. An example of a closed-ended question is “what color was the light as you approached the intersection?” Use this type of question when following up your open-ended questions. Closed questions give you an opportunity to gather the specific details of the event or incident.
5. Are You Listening?
Many times, we get into the bad habit of waiting to talk, rather than really listening to what somebody has to say. The conversation then becomes one-sided, on both ends, because the parties are simply talking out loud at one another.
Listening during an interview is imperative because it affirms to the interviewee that he/she is being heard and that his/her responses are important. Understanding the following two types of listening will make a difference in your connection with the interviewee.
- Passive listening is hearing what is said but not reacting. You are simply processing the information internally.
- Active listening is hearing what is said and repeating that information to the interviewee by summarizing or paraphrasing the responses. Repeating the interviewee’s answers not only lets him/her know that you are listening, but it also allows the interviewee to clear up any misunderstood information.
Utilizing these various listening techniques proves to the interviewee that you are dedicated and invested in what they have to say.
6. It’s Not What You Say But How You Say It
Have you ever gotten the feeling that something was wrong with a friend, but when you asked the question, his/her response of “nothing” just didn’t satisfy you? This is because their body language conflicted with their verbal response.
Nonverbal communication means any part of communicative expression other than the actual words used. Tone of voice, eye contact, posture, handshakes, are all common examples of nonverbal cues that can be assessed during an interview. Is the interviewee averting eye contact? If so, maybe he/she is lying about something.
Be keenly aware of these expressions because nonverbal communication can determine the quality or credibility of the interviewee and his/her responses.
You got through it! It may not have gone perfectly, but you’ve got a learning experience at your disposal. After the interview, evaluate the exchange to determine the effectiveness of your methods, techniques, and questions. This way, you can strategize how to conduct the next interview so that it’ll be even more productive and successful than the last.
Although this advice is geared towards paralegals conducting legal interviews, most of it is applicable to job interviews as well. Good luck and remember, be confident (or fake it)!
For more information about Center for Advanced Legal Studies' on-campus or online paralegal programs, please call 800-446-6931 or request the free brochure below.
Sahar Grovas is an online paralegal instructor at Center for Advanced Legal Studies. She is a practicing attorney in the area of personal injury and auto subrogation. However, prior to obtaining her law degree she was a paralegal for many years."Being in an intellectually stimulating environment, school or career, is simply exhilarating. There is nothing better in life than learning, no matter the source. To combine those two passions by teaching students about the legal field is incomparable. I'm proud to be a part of it all!