Ace Your Initial Client Meetings

The first meeting with a potential client is critical. You have to get the key information about the potential case and decide whether or not to represent the potential client. And, of course, the potential client has to decide if they want to hire you—all this hinges on your initial client meeting.

Obtain the Key Information

Your time is valuable and, like many lawyers, you may charge nothing for an initial meeting.

In a short amount of time, you will need to gauge the costs and benefits of taking your potential client’s case.If you practice in only one area, like bankruptcy, chances are good that you already have client checklist, but here are some of the things you will need to determine in an initial meeting:

  1. The chance of success (whether there can be a settlement or court victory).
  2. The amount of time you will have to devote to the case.
  3. Could this case lead to future work with this client or similar clients?
  4. Will you have extra expenses that arise from the case?

Additionally, remember that the easiest client to fire is the one you never agree to represent. After a client hires you, it gets much more difficult to back out of the case. And depending on how far into the case you go, it may become impossible.

You should also ask whether your potential client has met with any other lawyer about their issue. If other attorneys have turned them down, the case might not have as much merit as you thought.

If you don’t want to ask this question directly, you could ask, “how did you find out about me?”

Determine the Goal of Your Potential Client

Sometimes it is simple to figure out what a client wants to accomplish by hiring you. They are direct in their description of the key facts, and they assertively tell you what they expect you to accomplish.

Often, this isn’t the case. By the end of the “getting information” section of your meeting, if you haven’t figured out what exactly it is that your client wants, it’s best to just ask. You don’t need to be rude or condescending; just come right out and ask.

  • Direct approach: “What is your goal here?”
  • Indirect approach: “I am struggling to figure out what you want from this case.”
  • State the goal: “Here is how I am interpreting your goal. Am I on the right path?”

These may sound simple, but nothing is more important than understanding your client’s goals by the end of the initial meeting. If it isn’t obvious, don’t be shy about asking.

One way to absolutely cement the client’s goal is to have them write it down. Writing down the client’s goal right away can be especially useful later in the case if your client is reluctant to accept a settlement offer giving them everything they initially wanted.

To Google or Not to Google

Before you take on a client, you may want to find out more about them. No law prohibits a quick computer search on a prospective client. In some cases, it may be expected.

A search may be justified depending on the type of case they have. A criminal background check may be sensible or even necessary. There are lawyers who tell prospective clients they will do Internet searches before they take on a case. Sometimes merely telling a client that you will be doing some background work on them gets them to divulge what you will find. This gives your potential client a chance to explain what they may find before you discover it on your own.

Auditioning is a Two-Way Street

When meeting with your potential client, remember they are determining if they want to hire you. Even in an area in which you aren’t an expert, the single most important thing you can do to convince a potential client that they should hire you instead of another attorney is quite simple:

LISTEN

Listen to what the client says. If they feel rushed or not heard in the initial meeting, they may take their good case to another attorney.

I have interviewed over 28,000 clients, and the only rule I always try to follow is that I let the interview “breathe” as much as possible. As long as the client is giving me relevant information, I let them tell me their story in their own way. I will occasionally nod but generally I don’t even use verbal cues. I want them to tell the story as uninterrupted as possible.

That said, it’s also important to appear efficient. The client may be considering a relationship in which they will pay you by the hour. Convince them you won’t be wasting their money once they hire you. I try to minimize note-taking, but I do write down a few key points — jotting down names, dates, and key numbers are signs to the client that you are actually listening, not simply waiting for your chance to talk.

Once they are done with their story, go back and confirm key issues and ask clarifying questions about what they have covered. Last, ask questions about anything they did not address.

In a 2005 study about clients satisfaction/dissatisfaction with big law firms, fifteen percent of the respondents said what bothered them about their lawyer was “lack of client focus, failure to listen, non-responsiveness, arrogance.” This is one area where solos can easily outperform your big law counterparts. Take the time to listen.

Depending on whether you are an expert in the field, you may be able to offer some advice at the first client meeting. If so, it makes sense to outline your client’s strengths and weaknesses. I frequently talk to clients about two things:

  1. Options going forward.
  2. Likely consequences.

I don’t make guarantees about how a court will rule (and neither should you). But if there are similar cases you know about — or even better, that you worked on — use that to demonstrate your confidence in the case going forward.

One thing I try to avoid is the use of cases or statutes with initial client meetings. While some sophisticated clients want to know the exact statute and case that will help or hurt his or her case, most do not. Instead, your client counts on you to be able to translate complicated legal issues into understandable, conversational English.

Ending the Interview

There are three approaches to ending an initial interview with your potential client:

  1. Agree to represent the client, including signing a retainer agreement.
  2. Use a “cooling off” period. I know a lawyer who never agrees to represent a client the day they meet them. They explain to the client that the meeting is the start of a partnership and both sides should think before rushing the decision to work together.
  3. Wait to decide on working together based on additional information/documents.You may need to interview a key witness they have identified to gauge the strength of their case.

Whatever your next step is, make sure that it is absolutely transparent to the client. If nothing more will happen until they produce a key document, tell them. If you want to talk the next day, set a time to call or meet.

Originally published 2015-04-06. Republished 2016-05-13.

Featured image: “Business partners shaking hands as a symbol of unity, view from the top” from Shutterstock.

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  • Wait to decide on working together based on additional information/documents.

    This was one of my favorite ways to determine whether a potential client would be reliable during the representation. Whether before or after the initial client meeting, I’d ask them to gather some documents or record some calls (since we were suing debt collectors, this was usually important). If they did it, I knew I had a good client. If they didn’t, I knew I might have trouble later on.

  • Paul Spitz

    I’m torn between getting the client to sign up right there in the meeting, on the one hand, and waiting to send them a written proposal, on the other hand. Lately I’ve been going the written proposal route. It’s less pressure on the client, and it also gives me an opportunity to think about the services they need, and what I will be charging. There’s less room for error on my part when I have a chance to write up a proposal and e-mail it to the client.

  • Alex

    Does anyone have any practice area specific tips?

    In criminal defense cases, where it’s common to work on the flat fee, I try to have as much time as the client needs to go over their case with them. A longer initial meeting helps the client trust me, and helps me evaluate the client.

    I imagine that transactional attorney have a different approach, and the PI attorneys may be doing something completely different.

    • Paul Spitz

      I do transactional, with a lot of startups. They tend to have a lot of questions, and I have to be careful about telling them so much that they don’t need me and can do it themselves (even if they end up using a half-assed service like legal zoom).

  • Great article and advice Mike! Where were you ten years ago, when this could’ve saved me immeasurable amounts of time and frustration?!