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.
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.
I am a “Law Student Intern” and the “Disability Benefits Project Student Coordinator” here at LAB. I have two bosses and no, it is not the Office Space scenario where I am repeatedly told to put cover sheets on my TPS reports, because my supervisors have two separate job functions. Lynn works up a case, and Ana sees it through the hearing. Thus, I am fortunate in that I am exposed to the entire spectrum of a case, from a client’s first call through to a last hearing.
One of my supervisors is Lynn Barenberg, a social worker who has worked at BC LAB since the 80s. Lynn heads the Disability Benefits Project, a program that helps disabled clients appeal Social Security decisions denying Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). In this type of practice, the opposing party is the Social Security Administration, an administrative agency, and not another person or entity. Different types of law call for different techniques, and Lynn has learned through experience the appropriate language and approach to use with the agency in any given situation.
Lynn’s insight into how people react to words, speech and mannerisms is incredible. I submitted an introduction letter to Lynn for review the other day, introducing myself to my client, and it was returned with the nit-pickiest corrections! But, Lynn took the time to explain them to me and all of a sudden they didn’t seem so curious. As a small example, I had introduced myself as the “new law student intern,” and Lynn had deleted “new.” Lynn explained that this word alone, especially at the very beginning of a letter, changes how people will perceive its meaning. Clients see the word “new” and panic, it is an unintentional trigger. As a budding attorney, I leaned forward and listened closer as Lynn went on to explain the other small changes.
I was so intrigued by Lynn’s explanations and am so enthralled by her knowledge of the causes and effects of people’s behavior because it is a useful skill that translates to a competitive advantage in the legal industry. How can I take a good deposition or perform an effective cross without thinking about my words and mannerisms and understanding how the other person will react to them? And, more immediately, how can I conduct a productive client meeting without knowing which corners of a story to explore and which ones to leave alone? I can’t, but with Lynn as my guide and cultivating this skill as my focus, I hope to make large strides this summer.
My other supervisor is Ana Rivera, a BC Law grad and experienced attorney. I am helping Ana with a couple Social Security disability cases (at the hearing stage) as well as a family law case. Whereas my work for Lynn is comprised of initial client interviews, SSA pleadings, brainstorming, phone calls, letters to clients and filing appeals, my work for Ana is much more project based.
Projects emerge when preparing for a hearing because there are a lot of moving parts that must be made concrete, we must be able to use them and eventually commit them to a brief. Ana and I might discover at a meeting that a client received extensive medical attention in Florida, and all of a sudden my afternoon consists of getting my hands on all of these records. Once I get these records, I need to go through each page (even the hand-written nearly impossible to read doctors’ notes) and create a chart by date listing all of the relevant information and where to find it. There is a steep learning curve to this process, as you first must learn all of the medical terminology. Another project at this stage is researching the SSA listings, requirements that must be met in order to find a person disabled. Ana and I then put our heads together to determine which listings work best for the case, basically which listings we can best argue. We may start out at either end of the spectrum, but after discussion we settle on a few, mostly Ana’s… she is usually right. 😉
Now that I’ve introduced you to my office and supervisors, it is time to give you the scoop on my client meetings … up next week!
Now, before I dive into what I do at BC LAB, I want to tell you about the people that make BC LAB what it is… a great place to work.
Most of the supervising attorneys and social worker, Lynn Barenberg, have worked here for twenty years or more. They have seen hundreds of students come in and out of LAB doors, and yet, they make me feel as if I’m the first. During my first week, I wasn’t just thrown into the grinder and told to put my head down and “get it done.” Instead, the staff allowed for introductions and instructionals.
At our first meeting, we were told to refer to all supervisors by their first names. A nuance, but a strange thing to get used after addressing each as professor through the year! We were also served ice cream sundaes, but unlike what might occur at many other offices, these sweets were not catered. Instead, the supervising attorney bought the necessary ingredients and hand cut an entire bowl of strawberries for our enjoyment. She did not ask an administrative assistant to do it, she did not ask us to do it; she took the time and sliced those strawberries herself. Such a small act, but it let each and every one one of us know that we are respected.
Not only do the attorneys treat the students with respect, they treat the clients with respect as well. They understand that, in the end, they are working for the client and not vice versa. To people that have not worked in the legal industry this may sound like a no-brainer, but legal professionals may forget this detail more often than they care to admit. And understandably so… attorneys are asked to delve into a case, to know the ins and outs from every angle. And you, as the client, you want your attorney to treat your case as if it were his or her own, right? To become so involved as to make it personal? I’ve heard that going to trial is like a mini “vacation” from the world. Attorneys become so focused on the case that everything else falls away, fading into the background. When we make something that personal, when we spend so much time on a project, we naturally take ownership. And when it becomes ours, it is easy to forget who is supposed to be calling the shots (hint: the client!).
How do I know that the supervisors treat clients with respect after such a short time? It’s the little things. Right off the bat, we were taught to call the client for permission if we need to relay sensitive information in advocating to a third party. After a client meeting, we are taught to transcribe everything we’ve gathered from that meeting and save it on the server. This can be a time consuming process, but it saves the client from being asked sensitive questions again and again, as the case builds momentum. These practices respect the client’s right to privacy and acknowledge that, while their claim may feel like an invasive procedure, we will do everything in our power to minimize the unpleasantness of the process.
Are you now wondering, what are these unpleasant things? I thought that the client just tells the attorney the facts and then the attorney takes care of it? Well, not quite.
And, please check out my youtube video, telling you a bit about what’s ahead.
When a 1L is asked what they might like to do over the summer, there are two standard answers. The first is to work for a judge. The second is to work at a firm where the student is able to gain exposure to many areas of law with the hope of finding one in particular that he or she might like to pursue. I chose door number two.
Working at the BC Legal Assistance Bureau is a whirlwind tour of the law, and I have indeed been able to home in on various areas that I’d like to pursue. However, by the end of the first week I realized that that would not be my focus during my time at BC LAB. Instead, the real learning experience would come from client interactions.
In my limited time in the legal field, I have found that many students focus solely on the law. (As I may have been guilty of prior to working at BC LAB!) Students forget that they are in a service industry and will necessarily deal with people. And, no matter what field you are in, it is likely that you will work with people who have recently undergone trauma, who have mental impairments, or who want to tell you everything. It is difficult to know what is going on in the mind of the person across the table, and only experience can help a budding attorney develop the skills necessary to speak with clients the right way. From what I can gather, the right way comforts the client and simultaneously elicits information.
Client experience is not only important for learning how to conduct a client meeting efficiently and professionally, however. In fact, that is but the tip of the iceberg. What is really unique, and often overlooked, about these experiences are the moral and ethical dilemmas that arise out of such interactions. As the head LAB attorney expressed on my first day, these everyday moral/ethical dilemmas are what really make the work interesting.
And that’s why I’m here. Few legal professionals take the time to sit down and talk about the ethical decisions they are forced to make on a daily basis because of the fast-paced nature of the industry. There just isn’t the time. So, I’m making that time for you, budding attorneys. I’ll give you the whole story, exposing my green moments as I fumble through my first real hands-on legal job. I’ll introduce you to my work and my clients. I’ll take you through the highs and lows of my growth, of my clients’ stories and of our interactions. I hope to capture what isn’t taught in law school and what people forget to mention when you tell them that you want to be an attorney… the human aspect.
And please check out my youtube video, welcoming you!