Oregon State Bar Bulletin — DECEMBER 2013

Managing Your Practice

Listen Up:
The Important Initial Interview
By Dee Crocker

Have you ever wondered why a prospective client didn’t hire you? If your answer is yes, you’re probably going about your initial interviews wrong. The biggest mistake you can make when you are meeting a prospective client for the first time is to think that the meeting is about you. You may think that just because you know a lot about the law, a client would be crazy not to hire you. The truth, though, is it doesn’t work that way. The more you know about a client, his or her business and the real-life problems the client faces, the more likely the client is to hire you.

Lawyers who are successful at reeling in prospective clients spend the majority of the time listening to their clients during the initial meeting, which communicates concern and helps the lawyer address the clients’ needs more effectively. During the interview, the prospective client — not the attorney — is the most important player. If the attorney does all the talking, he or she learns very little about the client’s needs. And what client are most interested in is how their needs will be met. Lawyers who shift the focus off themselves and onto the potential clients’ problems will be well on their way to remedying their initial interview troubles.

Ditch the Pitch

Since the biggest mistake lawyers often make is trying to sell their services, they should “ditch the pitch.” If you use a pitch, you’re unconsciously deciding what the client wants to buy, because you’re deciding what to pitch. And you’re opening yourself up to talking about something the client doesn’t care about or thinks is irrelevant.

Oftentimes, lawyers do a lot of the talking because they’re trying to sell their firm — but they’re not listening to clients. You may then find yourself not knowing what the client expects. It’s a good idea to ask open-ended questions, such as, “If you were the jury, what would you consider justice in this case?” Instead of selling, focus on investigating clients’ needs during the first meeting.

As an example, in a domestic relations case, begin by asking questions about what the prospective client wants as an outcome and then probe a little deeper to move past some of the emotions. Ask what the person is willing to invest in time and energy, not just money. If there are children involved, focus on what the parent feels would be best for the children.

This approach can be particularly fruitful in business cases. Begin the interview by saying, “We will be happy to tell you about our firm, but it would be helpful if we could ask you some questions about the organization and what issues you are currently facing.”

Build Rapport

Although building rapport contributes to the success of the initial interview, many lawyers forget that the relationship begins the moment a client walks into their office. Simple things like respecting the client’s time can say a lot about a lawyer, so be on time for the appointment. Agree in advance how long the meeting will go, and honor the agreement. Don’t accept interruptions from others or take calls. Turn off your cell phone for the duration of the meeting. Use a client intake form that gives the client an opportunity to write down what they are seeing you about and review it thoroughly before you meet with them. See PLF Practice Aids, File Management (New Client Information Sheet, www.osbplf.org.).

Another method of building a relationship is to be honest with clients about their expectations. Never raise the client’s expectations, and let the client know you will need to investigate further before you can estimate what the case may be worth or if it’s even meritorious.

Check for Understanding

During the interview, make sure to watch for red flags — including body language — that suggest a prospective client didn’t understand something. The “glazed over look” is the No. 1 sign that indicates you may have lost the client’s attention. To avoid this, you need to stop after each point and ask the client an appropriate question. The answer will give you a clue as to whether the client is following along.

Look for body language that’s used at inappropriate times — for instance, when a person nods his or her head when there’s no reason to do so. They may have just realized that they weren’t paying attention, and to cover up they give you some sign of acknowledgment that just doesn’t fit the current moment. Another signal is when a person looks up and away from you. They may be thinking about what you just said and imagining how it applies to them. At this point, they are lost in their own thoughts and may not hear what you are saying next.

Establish Means for Follow-Up

Many lawyers don’t ask whether the client would like to follow up on the matter — and this is a huge mistake. When you don’t ask for the opportunity to handle the client’s matter, you run the risk of having the prospective client wonder if you really want the case, if you can actually do what you say you can do or if you would be aggressive enough. If clients want to follow up, you should then ask how they would like to proceed.

At the end of the interview, agree on the next step. It doesn’t matter if it’s a call, a letter or a date for another meeting or more information. When you and the prospective client agree on what will happen next, you avoid the anxiety of wondering what would be the most appropriate follow-up.

Some lawyers forget to ask how often and in what manner the client would like to follow up, which can cause bad feelings. There are two types of clients — those who want to be kept in the loop at all times — and those who only want to be in the loop when it’s absolutely essential. Determine what the prospective client wants and follow through.

Sometimes no matter how well the interview goes, the client isn’t ready to use your services. If your interview ends like this, the simplest thing to say is, “This is a pretty dynamic issue, and I don’t want three months to go by until we discuss it again. Would you like me to forward you relevant information periodically?” Most prospects are going to say yes and thank you for keeping in touch, which opens the door for future communication.

Summarize the Risks and Benefits

Naturally, the more people understand the gravity of a dilemma, the more likely they are to correct it. So, remind prospects about the risks of allowing their legal problems to continue and the benefits of solving them now. For example, if a trust and estates lawyer’s client is unsure whether to set up a trust right away, you should emphasize what could happen if they wait. You could say, “Right now, your estate tax liability is $250,000. After we set up your trust, your tax liability will be zero. My fee to draft your estate plan is $5,000. When your plan is in place, it will save your family $250,000 in estate taxes, eliminate at least $50,000 in probate costs and prevent lengthy court proceedings.”

It is also a good idea to provide more than one constructive solution. If you offer only one, your prospect’s choice is either “yes” or “no” — and “no” could mean not hiring you. Prospective clients like to see alternatives because it shows that you’re really looking out for their interests.

Do Your Homework

If part of your practice is devoted to business law, the best way to land clients is to research the company thoroughly before the first meeting. Don’t assume that a company is looking for a bankruptcy lawyer when they could actually need help with a merger or acquisition. They may see right through your shoddy research and decide not to give you their business. If the prospective client is a referral, ask your referral source why the client is seeking your services.

Since there’s no time to dig into the backgrounds of walk-in clients before the initial interview, all this advice goes out the window. So what should you do? Simply ask point-blank what their expectations are. In these instances, listening is key. If a client has been injured in an accident, don’t talk about what a great personal injury lawyer you are. Instead, ask prospective clients what keeps them up at night and what their needs are, and let them do most of the talking. This way, you’ll be better equipped to offer solutions that meet those needs.

Learning what to ask and being a good listener can help improve your business and make new clients from every prospect that walks through the door.


Dee Crocker is an OSB Professional Liability Fund practice management adviser and can be reached by email at deec@osbplf.org.

© 2013 Dee Crocker

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