What are the skills required for a strong interview?
The assessment criteria which are used by the judges who
judge the interviews are set out on the website. It is essential that you read these in order
to understand the thoughts that the judges will be having about the interview
There is a further resource online which is a version of the
oral briefing that judges will receive before the competition. This is not an
exact replica as it will always differ between individuals who give the
briefing, but it is a good example of the briefing that Marc Howe and I have
given at one of the regional competitions for the past two years. Again this
will enable you to understand the information that the judges have been given
and the expectations that they will have in respect of the competitors [please
note this is not yet available].
This piece explains some of the skills that are essential for a strong interview
at this competition level. It is not an exhaustive piece, and does not attempt
to reduce what could easily be an entire university module into one article,
but does focus on those skills that may not necessarily be immediately
considered and that may allow your technique to be adapted or amended.
They have been chosen with some care based around the
central concept of communication, and do not include such skills as questioning
technique, active listening, giving legal and factual advice, and other similar
concepts as these are skills without
which you are unlikely to be at the stage of the regional competition! The skills
that have been chosen are not all specific legal skills, and many fall better
under a category of communication skills as they are capable of appropriate use
in almost any field of work, or indeed in general life.
The five skills that have been chosen as a point of focus
are: demonstrating a genuine interest, using appropriate language, structure,
awareness of client choice, and ending the interview.
A demonstration of interest
Anyone who has been the subject of an interview, whether for
a job, or a placement at university, or for anything else, will know that one
of the hardest parts about being an interviewee is the uncertainty. There is no
question with whom the power belongs and it is with the interviewer. They
determine the questions that will be asked, how much of their reaction they
will reveal, and they are the ones who are entirely in control of the
In a client interview, the dynamic should be different, as
the client is either paying for the interview or using a one-off free interview,
and yet the control remains. The likelihood is that the interview will be
taking place in the solicitor's office, with their time restrictions, their
rules, and of the two, the solicitor will have nothing personal involved while
the client may be talking about the most important part of their life at
present. In spite of the reality that the client is a paying customer seeking
support, the dynamic will almost certainly remain with power focused on the
solicitor, whether they wish it or not.
The fundamental difficulty with this status quo is that the
client is more inclined to open up to a solicitor, or indeed anyone, when they
are in control, relaxed, and feel that they can trust the solicitor. In a
situation where the control is with another, they are more likely to be
reticent about sharing the important information, particularly if it is
information that they believe will cause concern in the solicitor.
Imagine for a moment a cold-call from any organisation with
whom you have a very basic relationship, for example provider of internet
services. How well you react to that phone call will depend on various factors,
including the contents of the call and alternative activities that you are
trying perform at the same time, but it will also depend on the extent to which
the caller is clearly reading off a script, and the extent to which they are
actually seeking to have a conversation with you.
It is therefore crucial for the solicitor to make an effort
not only to understand the facts but also to empathise with the client who is
relating the facts. This is not a case of 'politician's memory' where, out of
expediency or memory, a fraction of understanding can be translated from
sympathy, but instead involves a strong and powerful acknowledgement of the
situation that they find themselves in and the predicament that they are
facing. In short, you need to show active empathy.
The communication of this interest can be difficult,
particularly because it is impossible to understand the situation as
comprehensively as the client. It is essential, however, that the client is
aware of your interest in their situation as otherwise the communication will
likely remain less than optimal.
There are various techniques that can be used to demonstrate
the interest including active listening, summarising, asking reflective
questions, asking spin off questions, and adjusting the tempo and timing of the
questioning to reflect the answers that have been provided by the client. The
key, as in any conversation with a personal content, is to be genuine.
As a solicitor who only studied law in this millennia, I am
fortunate to have been trained in a (more or less) post-Latin legal world. This
is useful to me because my Latin is non-existent. It is also useful to my
clients because I have no inclination whatsoever to use Latin phrases that I
cannot pronounce, and they cannot comprehend.
It is not only Latin, however, where danger must be scented
and common sense applied. The very nature of law, as with any specific
profession or trade, inevitably results in a myriad of individual phrases,
acronyms and definitions. The use of them, by students in their studies, or
lawyers in their day to day dealings, will likely be natural but when used with
a client they can lead to confusion and a breakdown in communication.
Equally, the real motivation for the language awareness must
be understood. The language does not need to be amended because the lawyer is
speaking down to a client, rather because the lawyer needs to talk with the
client. This cannot be achieved if the client has to guess at the words that
are being used.
Broadly, this issue falls into three categories. The first
concerns an actual language barrier: the client simply does not know what the
lawyer is saying. This most obviously applies to Latin but can also apply to
technical terms that may not reflect common usage. For example in a family law case, a client may
be used to the phrase ‘custody of the child’ while a lawyer may use the phrase
‘Family Arrangement Order’.
Secondly, and often more dangerous, is where the client
thinks that he or she understands what is said but the knowledge is either
incorrect or incomplete. For example, it is quite common for a competitor to
suggest mediation as a remedy, without explaining what mediation is, only for
the client to believe that it means the same as negotiation. It is possible
that the client will ask for clarification but it is equally possible that they
Finally, and all too easy to slip into, is what can be
called Acronym Awareness. In everyday life, lawyers, and every profession or
trade, will abbreviate common phrases to acronyms. Thus Assured Shorthold
Tenancy becomes AST, Current Monthly Instalment becomes CMI, First Directions
Appointment becomes FDA and Interim Care Order becomes ICO. Because of common
use, the acronym becomes the norm and not the descriptive, and this can cause
confusion for a client. But even more, it can underline the belief of ‘us and
them’ as if the lawyer occupies a place in a different field from the client.
As a simple exercise, define the words and phrases below as
if you were defining them to a colleague, and then as if you were defining them
to a relative who had no legal training at all. It’s harder than it seems!
Statute of limitations
Care (in family law),
Family Arrangement Order,
Alternative Dispute Resolution.
Thirty minutes is at once a minute and vast amount of time.
As the interview verges from good to bad, magnificent to near-disaster, it is
very easy to get lost in the moment and lose track of the time. This is
particularly important because once the interview is over, time must be allowed
for the period of self-reflection.
Make sure there is a something to tell the time but also
make sure the interview retains a strong, clear, and known structure.
Going into the interview, you will have an idea as to how
you will proceed. It is equally important that this plan is communicated to
your client, preferably at an early stage of the interview.
The advantages of this are numerous. It is useful as an ice
breaker which can help settle your nerves and communicate professionalism to
your client. It enables you and your colleague to remind yourselves of the
structure. It is remarkable how easily items that came smoothly in practice can
be forgotten when nerves strike. A good and clear structure also allows you to
steer your client back on track if and when there is a danger that they are
about to veer off course.
Finally it gives you and the client a clear road map so that
at every stage of the interview, both you and he or she can have a recollection
of where you are and where you will be going next. Remember the point that was
made earlier about the importance of the client being in control. You may
control the agenda, but if your client knows where you are going then at least
there will be no surprises.
In one sense this is a core skill as it forms a specific
part of the marking criteria. However, it is a subtle part of the interview and
it is one that is often neglected by teams.
It reverts back to the theme that was discussed in the
initial skill-set: control. By the time that the teams reach a stage where they
are giving advice, they should have managed to establish a relationship with
the client that is both professional and empathetic. The initial concern that
control might have been lopsided should have been addressed, and in a sense
this is part of the difficulty.
All being well, the client will now be confidently looking to
his or her legal team to provide the answer. Indeed this may have been their
approach from the start ie that there is one answer and that is what they seek.
The reality is likely to be that there are many more options
that the client has and that will be spelled out by the lawyers. This is
entirely correct, and indeed the provision of legally based and non-legally
based solutions form part of the criteria. However, no matter what the view of
the lawyers, no matter how strongly they believe that a client should follow
their preferred method, it is essential that they go no further than advising
as to advantages and disadvantages.
The final choice must always belong to the client, and it is
not sufficient to assume that the client is aware of this. They must be expressly
told that it is their decision, and that the lawyers can only set out the
various options and likely consequences.
Ending an interview
Whenever I am asked for my opinion on the most difficult
part of interviewing a client, I inevitably tell them that it is the end of the
interview, whether it is in an artificial setting such as the competition,
where the 30 minutes has expired and you need to get on with the
self-reflection, or in practice where a free 30 minute interview cannot be
allowed to spill over into billable time, and where the mantra that 'time is
money' rebounds from floor to ceiling.
By contrast, the opening is a simple matter. The interview
starts with a knock on the door, and much of the opening can be practised until
you are left cursing the formalities that must be followed. There is, however,
no automatic buzzer that sounds when the client's time is up, and it is
probable that they will not have been following the clock. How then can the
interview be ended, without the client feeling that they have been neglected,
rushed, or transformed into a number?
The first and most important point is to ensure that the
client understands that there is a time limit on the meeting. This will ensure
that they know that there is a finite time. If necessary it can be used as a
way of encouraging them to speak, or for your partner to speed up if they have
lost track of the time! It is always better for the time limitations to be
acknowledged early in the interview.
Secondly, ensuring that you have a structure and that the
client is aware of it will allow both you and the client to keep up with the
progress of the interview and enable a clear conversation about the direction
that you need the interview to take. If you have informed your client at the outset
that the interview will last approximately 30 minutes, it should come as no
surprise to them when you begin to wrap matters up. It is difficult to feel
hostility when you have been pre-warned that something will be happening, even
if you do not like the event itself.
Finally, don’t rush. In my experience, nerves in an
interview tend to crop up twice. First at the outset when adrenaline is
pumping, and secondly toward the end when a break is on the horizon and
decisive action is needed to move from the interview to the self-reflection.
This becomes particularly apparent when you are focusing on the clock to ensure
that you have sufficient time to conduct the self-reflection. Bearing this in
mind, try to relax and keep the end of the interview under control. As long as
you are more or less on course for time, an extra 30 seconds won’t make a great
deal of difference, save that it will make the end feel less rushed and far
It is entirely possible that having read thus far, and noted that I said this was a small sample of skills, you may be feeling overwhelmed. I therefore leave the article with one final analogy which is that interviewing a client is much like driving a car. The challenge is not so much mastering the many individual skills, but rather putting them together to form a complete whole. Fortunately, the answer to this is the same as for driving: practice, practice, practice -and without the risk of running into another car. The suggestions above can mostly apply to everyday life and can often be practiced in many ways. When talking to someone at the bar, think about how you are showing an interest in them- particularly if you are talking to your partner! When answering a question in class, think about whether your answer has a structure. When a friend asks you a technical question about their sales agreement, think about whether your language is confusing them, and whether you are telling them what to do or suggesting what they might do. Finally, when you end a conversation with anyone, think about whether it has been a natural conclusion or whether they, or you, feel that you have been rushed away. Have fun!
National Training Officer