The ability to interview a client effectively is one of the most important skills a solicitor must possess. When representing a client it is vital to ensure that you have all the relevant details and the first few consultations with your new client will provide you with the foundation for your lawyer/client professional relationship.

Each team of two has a set amount of time to ascertain all information necessary to allow you to represent your client effectively and then some time will be set aside for you to reflect on your interview.

Competitors must cover all the formalities of an interview, take note of the personal details of the client, the intricacies of the problem and suggest possible courses of action.

The winners of the Australian Client Interviewing Championships earn the right to represent Australia at the International Client Counselling Competition.

The ALSA Client Interview rules can be found here.

TIPS: CLIENT INTERVIEW

Reece Corbett-Wilkins and Nicholas Ferrari

This guide is intended to be a touchstone piece to inform your consideration of how to best prepare for and compete at ALSA. You should use each point to consider how you may be able to improve your practice. Whether you incorporate these ideas in your own style is up to you, we do not expect this guide to be followed word for word. However if you do not follow our approach, we suggest you still consider whether your own methods cover the substance of the material. We wish you the best of luck in the competition and are confident that you will enjoy the experience, irrespective of the outcome.

Background to the competition

As you are aware from your university competition, client interview is a skill-based competition involving an initial interview with first time client.  The only difference between your university and the ALSA competition is that the degree of skill and experience of your competitors is generally greater. Typically, the ALSA competition schedule will span over a number of days, during which there will be at least 3 preliminary rounds and 3 final rounds. The preliminary rounds are round robin, while the final rounds are elimination.

The ALSA Conference is about more than just competing. There are a number of educational, social and networking events on offer. We recommend that you make the most of the Conference by participating in all aspects and events. You will take more away from the experience if you do this. Remember, there can only ever be one winner of the competition. Please do not feel that you should have to stay at home and not enjoy yourself. From experience, you can make the most of all of the events and still do well.

While we recognise that as law students we are sticklers for strict compliance with rules, it is important to recognise that an appeal process very rarely results in the overturning of a decision (we have never seen an instance where this has occurred). Furthermore, an appeal affects a large number of stakeholders’ time, including your team, the opposing team, your ALSA representative, the appeals panel and the ALSA Council. We recommend that the appeal process should be used sparingly and you should consider whether you have appealable grounds, whether they are reasonable and the impact of making appeals on your brand and reputation. There is nothing worse than a sore loser.

Personal experience

We first competed at the ALSA Conference in 2010 in the Client Interview Competition. We were fortunate to win this competition. As a consequence, in 2011 we represented Australia at the International Client Consulting Competition in Maastricht, the Netherlands, where we placed 2nd. We then went on to compete at the  ALSA Conference in 2011 in the Negotiations Competition. We were fortunate to win this competition. As a consequence, in 2012 we represented Australia at the International Negotiations Competition in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where we placed 7th. In addition to this, we have judged at a university and intervarsity level for a number of competitions and have orchestrated numerous competitions. In this light, our guidance is based on our experience as competitors and facilitators, not as practitioners.

As demonstrated above, there are a number of ongoing opportunities that arise through participating in the ALSA Conference. We would not have been able to achieve what we have without the assistance of countless students and student societies, practitioners, academics and family members. We encourage you to use your experience to help others.

Competition preparation (pre-ALSA)

For the sake of brevity, we list the following ideas for your consideration.

  • Consider literature – see list below for some suggestions
  • Practice, Practice, Practice – we were fortunate that Macquarie University organises a competitions preparation weekend before ALSA where all competitors can practice their respective competitions. If your university law society does not run such an event, we recommend that you organise your own practice sessions.  If you cannot find a client, then take turns acting as client. We recommend that you contact your University ALSA representative for examples of previous questions. You will be surprised at how much you can learn from this process. If you have a webcam on your computer or a camera phone, record your practice sessions and critique them
  • Develop teamwork – it is crucial to recognise that teamwork can be enhanced. This can be achieved through understanding each others expectations, developing trust and rapport and a strategy for best communicating with each other during and after each round
  • Plan – make sure you know the judging criteria and that your interview process incorporates all the necessary parts of the interview. For example, costs, explaining options to client, etc. The best teams will have an intimate knowledge of the rules and the judging criteria
  • Know the ALSA rules and guidelines – know the rules and appeal process as these will no doubt be different to your university competition
  • Work on your legal general knowledge – although compared to mooting the level of legal knowledge you need for client interview is much lower, it is important to recognise that having a solid practical knowledge of the law is important. It is particularly important to focus on the practical aspects of the law. For example, how do you bring a claim in a court?
  • Recognise the jurisdiction – ALSA is an international competition and you should be aware that the relevant law for the competitions is that of the hosting state. This means that you may need to do a bit of research to note any major differences in the law. It also means that a number of the acts that you are familiar with may not be relevant.
  • Judge a round – by being a fly on the wall, you will better appreciate otherwise unobservable traits you might exhibit, the importance of various aspects of the negotiation, as well as the nuances of judging  
  • Gather necessary materials – such as stationary, compendiums, appropriate clothing and additional academic resources to take with you
  • Rest assured – although you are coming up against a high caliber of competitors, most competitors are in the same situation as you having just come out of exams and with other competing pressures

Round preparation (at ALSA)

For the sake of brevity, we list the following ideas for your consideration.

  • Read your memos – the memo is always brief but it is important to make sure you know your client’s name and why they are coming to see you. However do not focus too heavily on what the memo says because sometimes they can be misleading
  • Know your interview process – it is important to be familiar with your team’s process.  Who welcomes the client, who talks about the retainer, will you need to stress certain areas in relation to what your client is coming in to see you about etc
  • Brainstorm – consider some scenarios that the client might be facing. How will you deal with each?
  • Recognise your professional and ethical duties – to the court, to each other, to the client.  It is quite common for the scenario to give rise to legal issues and conflicts. Also the rules and laws governing the profession vary from state to state
  • Consider the legal landscape – what processes are available to resolve issues in the area of law the client is coming to see you about?
  • Practice your post consult strategy – how can you quickly and comprehensively summarise the interview, while also succinctly and successfully convincing the judges that you have excelled in some areas but that you also recognise opportunities to improve

Tips and Tricks during the round

For the sake of brevity, we list the following ideas for your consideration.

  • Professionalism, courtesy and respect – this is integral to the profession. You will not always get pleasant clients (in the competition or practice). You need to consider how will you deal with difficult or deviant clients
  • Break the ice – take a little time at the beginning of the interview to make the client feel comfortable. Be aware you may not always have law students as clients
  • Give the client a chance to tell their story – it is important to allow the client an opportunity to tell their story. It makes them feel comfortable and gives you a better understanding of what their issues are. However do not let them ramble
  • Use funnel questions – you will get more information from a client with open questions and then narrowing in with more focused or closed questions. For example:
    •  open broad – can you tell me more about the time when you were in the gym?
    •  open narrow/closed broad – who is Mrs X and how do you know her?
    • closed narrow – how many drinks did you have?
  • Practice active listening – listening is a skill that takes time to develop.  Active listening requires you to hear, understand and acknowledge what your client is saying.  You should ensure that at least one person maintains eye contact with the client, paraphrase/summarise and confirm what the client says, and show an interest when they talk
  • Client interests – you need to understand what your client wants and not just the issues they face. Make sure you ask them what outcomes they want
  • Reality test client’s goals and manage their expectations – you need to manage your client’s expectations. Clients often come to lawyers for justice but all we can give them is law. The courts are the ones that decide what is just, or at least legal
  • Do not advise – Mr Steve Mark the NSW Legal Services Commissioner once advised us, “Do not attempt to be lawyers before you are lawyers” – often teams fall into the trap of trying to impress the client and the judge(s) that they profess an understanding of the law, often teams get the law wrong. There is nothing worse then incorrectly advising the client about the law or the correct approach. Even the best lawyers will require time to consider a claim fully before they can advise their client. Also, remember that there are two sides to a story. Your client’s side is but a part of that. You are better off reserving judgment until you can form an informed view than attempting to impress your client in the first interview
  • Be flexible – be willing to adapt your strategy to the clients needs
  • Wrapping up – towards the end of the interview leave sufficient time to organise a second meeting, explain to the client the next steps and confirm what they have told you
  • Be mindful of your audience – it is our experience that students, commercial lawyers, mediators, arbitrators, members of the judiciary and academics will judge you. While they bring their own strengths, do not assume that they will be experts in the area of law that relates to your client. They will also have preferences of different styles and language when conducting the interview however do not let a preconceived idea of their preferences govern your approach
  • Post consultation – do not underestimate the importance of the post consultation, a team can often win or lose based on the way in which they communicate the strengths and weaknesses of their performance and how they viewed their client’s scenario
  • Reflective practice – we recommend you actively engage in reflective practice after each round to identify your individual weaknesses and strengths and to develop trust and rapport with each other with a view to improving  

Further resources

We recommend you consider the non-exhaustive list of materials below:

  • University Guides and materials. There are some excellent guides out there, your competitors are using them, why aren’t you.
  • LawAccess website (NSW based)
  • Publications by various courts and government bodies
  • ALSA materials
  • Those available on various international client consulting competition website