Client consultations are important in all fields of law in determining whether a client is right for you or your firm. The styles and techniques used for initial interviews or consultations will vary amongst attorneys based on the information necessary to for deciding to take on the client. You should always be asking yourself both “Is this client right for me? Am I right for this client?”
Importance of the first meeting
So, why is the initial interview important? The attorney-client relationship begins when any initial interview walks through your door. First impressions are key, in life and in client consultations. It sets the tone with the client and keep in mind, a good impression always carries the possibility of future referrals (even if you don’t end up taking the case). Clients get divorced, some get remarried and may need help with prenuptial agreements in the future.
With any initial consultation, you must check for conflicts of interest. You should be maintaining a database of all people who have had significant or relevant contact with the firm. The reason this is so crucial in family law is that attorney shopping has become a fairly common practice. An attorney/firm cannot meet with both spouses so the angry spouse goes and meets with every attorney in town and conflicts out that firm for the other spouse. The last thing you want is to be half way through an initial interview and you realize you have heard this story before. And remember, people don’t always have the same last name.
Role with client
Clients in these difficult and highly emotional situations want you to be their therapist. They will want to talk about all of the bad or wrong things the other party has done and most don’t understand the line between legal protection and emotional protection. You are not their to fix their marriage or place blame or fault, you are there to provide legal advise and legal security. It is important to keep the client focused and on topic. Let them talk for 10-15 minutes, explain their story, and push them along towards their expectations and goals in this case.
Establishing trust with family law clients is crucial as this is usually an extremely difficult time for the client. You should understand the client expectations at the outset. Don’t just tell them what they want to hear, this usually sets the client up for a failure. You need to be confident and reasonable in establishing a balance, “…here is what you are going to be entitled to…” in order to gain their trust you must be truthful up front. In litigation, you have to deal with the opposing counsel, the former spouse and the judge – nothing is guaranteed and you must never guarantee results! It may be more difficult if you are taking a phone consultation because it is harder to read someone over the phone. You should provide the same confidence and security as you would in an in-person interview.
Some practice tips: Avoid interruptions! Block out the time on your schedule and ensure you give the client a heads up if you have a prior commitment immediately following so it doesn’t look like you are running out on them – the key focus is that client. How does your office look? A messy or unorganized office is a bad reflection on you. The client will question their importance or your level of competency if you’re so busy you cant keep a clean, organized office. Have a box of tissues on hand, the family law attorney’s office is an emotional place. And always discourage children attending initial consults. Unless they are an adult, you don’t want to pit a child against the other parent or family member. You should highly encourage the client to reschedule if they are unable to find a suitable alternative for their child.
While the topic of attorneys fees always make clients nervous or uncomfortable, as lawyers we still need and want to get paid for our services. You should bring up fees early and often. Ensure it is made very clear, several times if necessary, that a payment will be required so there is no confusion and there is no misleading the client. Whether to charge for a consultation is a firm-by-firm decision. Some firms provide free initial consultations hoping to bring it more potential clients and some firms may charge an hourly or flat fee. The most important thing to remember is there should be no surprises. If you decide to charge for initial consultations, make sure the client knows prior to walking through your office door that there is a charge. To be safe, you can have an assistant or office manager require a form be filled out with credit card information before a client may speak to an attorney. This may turn clients around and you watch them walk back out the door – it is something to be considered in making a firm decision on charging for consultations.
It is generally a good idea to keep a referral log. If a client has been referred to you, they should be logged in. You can send then a referral fee as a thank you or around holiday time it may be nice to send gifts of appreciation to the referrals. You should always seek to maintain relationships with colleague, other attorneys and professional in the industry and community. And when a client or case just is not right for your firm, you should consider referring the client out to another attorney and increase the chance they send future referrals your way.
Confidentiality is an issue that should be brought up with the client during the initial meeting. Clients will come in before discussing divorce with their spouses and you absolutely do not want the firm to be surprising the other spouse. To keep such confidentiality, make sure you keep accurate notes as to addresses or phone numbers that are not to be used in relation with the case. You should not keep your client waiting in the lobby of a family law firm – running into someone in the waiting room at the dentist is not the same as running into them at the divorce attorney’s office.
Confidentiality in regards to technology has become an extremely important issue and should be discussed with your client at the beginning. Client’s should be overly careful about shared computers and devices. Browser history should be cleared if client was searching for divorce attorneys and hasn’t told their spouse. Facebook accounts should be deactivated – they can always be reactivated when the case is over. Everything is connected, for example, all Apple products are connected. You can access iPhone email and messages on an iPad and vice versa: GPS location services can be used across products to track a person’s whereabouts and automatically saved credit cards and passwords are accessible without authorization. All of this is important information to relay to the client to avoid major issues in future litigation.
Do you want the case?
The two main questions to ask yourself are: Is this worth my time and will I get paid? Sometimes it is hard to gauge potential clients and therefore checking for red flags can save you a lot of time and frustration. In the first meeting you should find out their current financial situation: resources for support, are they dependent on another party, what are their expenses. How will they pay their bills? Will they be able to afford you? If the client has switched from another attorney feel free to contact the first attorney and see what happened. If they are seeking a third, fourth, fifth attorney, they are not just picky and it is likely that nobody will be good enough – this is a big red flag and you should say no regardless of the money promised. Ensure it is a good fit both ways, if the client is looking for “a shark, to bleed them dry!” and you only practice collaborative law or if you are a litigator and they want to stay out of the courtroom it may not be a good fit. You should be clear about your style from the beginning.
In the end, whether or not to take on a new client is a personal decision for every attorney and firm. You should conduct your initial interview with the intention of making that decision in the end.
How To Earn CLE Credit on this Topic
For an in-depth review on this topic, Attorney Credits offers a course titled “The Initial Client Interview in Family Law Matters”
The course is available for CLE credit in the following states: Alaska (AK) | Arizona (AZ) | California (CA) | Colorado (CO) | Connecticut (CT) | District of Columbia (DC) | Florida (FL) | Georgia (GA) | Illinois (IL) | Maryland (MD) | Massachusetts (MA) | Michigan (MI) | Minnesota (MN) | New Jersey (NJ) | New York (NY) | North Dakota (ND) | Pennsylvania (PA) | South Dakota (SD) | Texas (TX)