The Social Work Department

After going to an interview with the expectation that housing would be the only topic and coming out overwhelmed after hearing about sexual assault, a BC LAB summer intern asked the supervisors to please hold a client interviewing workshop.

It could be argued that attorneys are more effective when they have been specifically trained in interviewing techniques and client relationship management, yet this training is not always made a priority.  As an initial impulse, budding attorneys are often so focused on getting the facts and then getting out, that they may forget to manage the relationship.  We forget to build trust with the person sitting in front of us.

Physicians are often guilty of this oversight as well.  Have you ever been to a doctor who sits at a computer and types notes as he or she asks you questions? The doctor stares at the bright screen as you cower behind them, hunched over in a chair, uncomfortable and half naked.  There is no eye contact.  And then, the doctor asks you to lie down and proceeds with the physical exam.  One could become uncomfortable just thinking about it.  The same principles apply in legal interviewing.  If we don’t make eye contact and speak to the person in front of us, the client will likely feel violated when we start asking questions about intimate parts of their life.  And yet, we often miss this link.

Luckily for us at LAB, we have Lynn Barenberg, a social worker and in-house consultant who has worked here since the 80s.  She is what I like to call our “social work department.”  Lynn was happy to hold a client interviewing workshop for the summer interns.  In this session, she encouraged us to talk about our interviews and the obstacles that we had already encountered.  We discussed the raw parts of life and raw emotions that we had been exposed to as well as techniques we’ve tried in managing these encounters appropriately.  Lynn then gave us specific language to use to make a client feel at ease or to press deeper into topics that we might like to shy away from, but that we cannot given the circumstances.  She gave us tools to use in our next interviews.

Without a social work department to provide such tools, budding attorneys learn by doing.  But, how are we to know the right way to manage raw stories and the emotions that accompany them if we’ve never been exposed to such situations in our own lives?  To experienced attorneys in the field, certain violent stories or sad and unfortunate disabilities are par for the course.  A seasoned attorney may hear these stories all the time and can become desensitized to them.  For us budding attorneys, however, it can feel like a tidal wave.  Compounding this feeling is the desire to be adept.  You represented yourself as competent in the hiring process and accordingly, that is what the firm expects of you.  So, you hold your head up high, don’t ask questions, and go with the flow.

But why?  Why would we ignore an aspect of lawyering as important as interviewing effectiveness; a skill that could elevate us from mediocre attorneys to great attorneys?  I’ve been told, “facts are feelings and feelings are facts” and now realize how true this is.  You can’t get all the facts if you don’t deal with the feelings.  And to deal with the feelings, you must not shy away from them.  Our instinct is to either hug or run, but we must train ourselves to address the emotion and then push forward.  At least, that’s what Lynn says.  I’m working on it, Lynn.

Stay posted!


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