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Attorneys delegate some of their tasks, including interviewing clients, to paralegals, legal assistants who work mainly in litigation. Paralegals conduct two kinds of client interviews -- the initial intake interview and a followup interview. The initial interview focuses primarily on information-gathering, but a paralegal might conduct a followup meeting to clarify or elaborate on subjects discussed during the first meeting, or involve new information or evidence.
Preparing for the Interview
A paralegal’s job begins well before the first meeting with the client. Paralegals first conduct background research and review the details of the case. This helps them determine which areas need further exploration and assists them in creating a client questionnaire. Before the initial interview, held either over the phone or face-to-face, paralegals gather all documents pertinent to the case. In a personal injury case related to a car accident, for example, this might include a copy of the official accident report. In some cases it might also include consent forms authorizing the release of medical or financial information.
Putting the Client at Ease
Knowing what questions to ask is only part of a paralegal’s role. Paralegals must also know how to ask them and how to make the client comfortable about disclosing the personal and sometimes embarrassing details of a case. Paralegals must also instill confidence in the firm to encourage the client to stay. They accomplish all of this by creating a safe atmosphere, possibly by speaking with the client over a small table instead of from across a large and imposing desk. As a representative of the firm, they must also conduct themselves in a warm but professional manner to win the client’s trust.
Creating a Questionnaire
Much like a journalist interviewing a source, paralegals typically have a list of questions to guide their meeting with clients. The questions help set the stage by describing the circumstances surrounding what happened, whether it was a car accident or a legal dispute. In the case of workplace harassment, for example, the paralegal might ask the client to describe word-for-word what a colleague said. Using a standardized form ensures that attorneys have the information they need to evaluate the case and determine how to proceed.
Paralegals also use the interview to gather evidence to make the case stronger. For example, the paralegal might ask the client for photos of an accident scene or injuries. He might also ask for photos of damage or injuries, and if none have been taken, instruct the client to do so. In addition, the paralegal might ask the client to bring in copies of police reports, medical records, contracts, witness contact information and anything else the firm can use to strengthen its case.