Practical Lawyering Skills
579: Practice Fundamentals: Interviewing Skills
Some of the most common complaints about lawyers stem from a single fundamental truth: we are trained to talk, but we are not trained to listen. Clients tell us frankly that we “have poor listening skills,” and further that we “don’t genuinely care about them or their case,” that we “think we know everything” and “nitpick every word they say.” Other client frustrations, such as “not communicating clearly,” “not keeping [them] informed,” and “kill[ing deals]” are superficially unrelated to our listening skills, but at bottom reflect a failure to appreciate the client’s point of view. In short, all lawyers need to know how to elicit and contextualize information from those they represent in order to represent them well. While interviewing is crucial to client relationships, its value does not end there. Young attorneys juggle many audiences in a day. These include assigning partners or department supervisors and those encountered in the course of doing the legwork that is a beginner’s bread and butter: opposing counsel and their staff, or low-level representatives of government institutions, including court and agency clerks. Happily, the listening and interviewing skills a young attorney acquires during these experiences will pay off when she tackles witness interviews and her first on-the-record interview, the deposition.
This course will introduce students to theories of interviewing and listening in a variety of legal contexts. More important, students will try their hands at different types of interviews to hone this experiential skill. We will meet for an hour each week, and our time will be spent roughly as follows: a 10-minute introductory discussion about the week’s reading, followed by a 30-minute “workshop” during which groups or pairs of students will conduct interviews using case study materials distributed in class. We will conclude by reflecting on the interview experience. Because each student will serve as both interviewer and interviewee each week, we will be able to consider the conversation from both the lawyer and the client points of view.
The course is a survey of different types of interviews young lawyers are most likely to conduct: beginning with a general overview and moving to practice-specific interviews about potential litigation or corporate work. We will then move to a conversation that directly results from the initial interview: review of an action plan with the client. From client interviewing, we will consider adapting these skills in three other contexts relevant to the beginning lawyer: witness interviews, adversary conversations (pre-negotiation or logistical negotiation) and finally, an introduction to depositions. Throughout, we will develop an awareness of the ethics and social considerations likely to arise in various communications contexts.