Diary of a legal aid lawyer

Diary of a legal aid lawyer: Making the most of initial client interviews

As lawyers, we understand that someone coming to an appointment for the first time is likely to feel uncertain about the experience. After all, lawyers aren’t always portrayed in the best light in TV programmes! Clients are often at their lowest point, with no confidence or faith that anyone wants to help them.

Whether it is our first initial interview or our thousandth, it’s our job to let them know that they are important. So how do we get that right?

One of The Family Law Company’s core values is to listen, think, and then act. This certainly applies to initial client interviews. It’s our job to not only extract the information we need, but to make sure they are safe and help them to feel reassured.

Since Covid, most of my initial meetings are conducted by phone. We have a dedicated client call team to handle the initial enquiry; they’re trained to ensure a client is safe before a call is conducted. There are benefits of talking on the phone for a first interview: clients usually feel more inclined to open up, especially if they are scared or embarrassed.

Many legal aid clients will have had experienced trauma of some kind. Calmly running through the basic information about them, their ex-partner, and any children they have can put them at ease. At the same time you can check the details you have are correct. It’s often best not to direct the client too prescriptively to start with, but instead give them the chance to open up. At the end of an initial interview, clients frequently say thanks for allowing them to offload. Sometimes this will be the first time they’ve told anyone so much detail of what they have been through.

Effective notetaking will help if there’s anything you need to pull them back to, such as incidences of domestic abuse. For some clients, this has happened so often they feel it’s inconsequential. Reassure them that their experience is important to you. Be empathetic and show you have an understanding.

Once you have a handle on their background, you can unpick what the issue is that brought them to you so you can provide an overview on what you can do. If abuse is involved, it’s important to determine what the most impactful type of abuse has been. As awful as physical abuse is, coercive control can leave deeper, unseen scars and destroy someone’s mental health.

As lawyers, we need to take some time to digest the information too. It can be profoundly difficult to hear about another human being’s suffering, and in adverse circumstances, we need time to process that too. A quick chat with your supervisor or grabbing a coffee to reflect can be invaluable.

Whilst it seems a lot to do for an initial appointment when you have other pressures, getting it right is important. Make sure that your client knows they are being listened to as they tell their own truth – give them to space and time to tell it.

By Zoe Hewines, Trainee Chartered Executive, The Family Law Company

The Family Law Company will return with a new entry to their diary of a legal aid lawyer every fortnight, available exclusively on Today’s Family Lawyer.

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