A Tailored Approach to Initial Client Meetings

In disability law, and I’m sure in many other areas of law, client meetings can be intense.  A two-hour meeting may not feel long, but once you step out of the room and take a breath, you realize the mental fatigue.  Perhaps for me at this point, where everything is so new, there is an information overload component that wears.  But, something tells me that’s not the bulk of it.

There are a few goals for an initial client meeting to gather information to appeal a Social Security disability decision.  These include determining the procedural posture of the case, obtaining some social history, and getting a detailed picture of the client’s disabilities.  This last part, the medical component, usually takes up the greater part of the meeting.  Many clients present to LAB for help with disability benefits because they have multiple disabilities, the combination of which renders them disabled.  With such a variety of disorders, an accurate and descriptive medical picture can be quite the task.

So, what’s the procedure?  We can’t rightly shake the client’s hand, ask them to take a seat and then dig into the reasons for severe depression or similarly sensitive conditions.  Not only would this be unprofessional, inappropriate and potentially offensive, it wouldn’t serve the client.  Such a technique would result in superficial explanations, a one-dimensional portrayal of the mental and physical ailments that hinder the client’s everyday life.  In my mind, that is not advocacy.

Instead, the procedure is always different, tailored for each client.  Part of our job is to gauge the client to assess comfort level and then proceed.  At first, this process was at odds with what I understood to be a proper agenda for a client meeting.   When I was initially instructed to prepare for meetings, I would go through every page of the file to gather the information we already had to see what we still needed.  I would then prepare a very detailed list, organize it by subject and call this my interview outline.  However, I quickly learned that such a strict format doesn’t work well in an interview.

Having a detailed list for an interview agenda results in blind questions with answers that fall on deaf ears.  The interviewer asks the question, gets an answer, writes it down, and on it goes.  Another pitfall of the checklist technique occurs with overlapping subject matters.  How do you keep a good record when you are on subject A, but the client explains it in a way that touches on subject B?  Life doesn’t fit in such neat little boxes.  And, most importantly, you can’t tailor a strict question and answer format to the client’s affect.  What results when you suddenly realize that your next five questions are too sensitive, but that skipping to the next section would be awkward and inappropriate?  A choppy and unproductive interview.

An interview should be a conversation, not a strict question and answer format.  I realized that a better way to prepare for meetings is to identify broad subject areas to develop with the client.  Of course, there are usually some specifics that need to be nailed down and I’m sure to include them, but that’s it.  Headings and bullets, not questions and answers.  In my limited experience, I have found that this allows greater flexibility in a meeting.

Being able to adapt to circumstances and new information is important in our field, and is often portrayed in legal dramas.  You know the ones, where an attorney flies by the seat of her pants in a provocative courtroom scene and through her improvised cross reveals the smoking gun and wins the case.  Though not as widely advertised, it is no less important in an interview.  Adaption provides flexibility, a resource that can be used in a variety of ways to tailor a meeting for a successful client experience.

Some clients need to talk, to explain their frustrations or concerns, while others would rather be left alone and view our meetings as a necessary evil.   As in life, some people are devout extroverts while others are shy.  Both personalities have their obstacles; it feels invasive and uncomfortable to ask a shy person to share, while it is difficult to keep excitable clients on track.  And we need to stay on track.  There is so much to cover in the first meeting, and locking ailments and events into time takes patience, concentration and analysis.  I suspect this is a tiring process no matter how many interviews you’ve performed.

So our job, as budding attorneys, is to simultaneously gather information, record it, know what question to ask next, analyze the information for holes and inconsistencies or areas that need to be further developed, all while conducting a fluid and comfortable meeting.  These are important skills to develop as, down the line, we’ll be able to transfer them to depositions, cross-examinations and the like.  Perhaps this all sound easy to you, but such an outlook begs the well-known response; everyone would do it if it were easy.

Stay posted!

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