From the Oklahoma Bar Association comes "The Initial Client Interview," by Jim Calloway. It's a good overview of the client-interview process that begins like this:
In many ways for lawyers the initial client interview is like a first date. You do not know each other that well and hope to get better acquainted. There is often a bit of tension or wariness. There are lots of unanswered (and unasked) questions, and it may have its awkward moments. But both of you hold out the hope that this may turn into a long term, mutually beneficial relationship.
I agree completely with this advice:
The client will be also concerned about the ultimate results. Heaven help the lawyer who promises a specific outcome. Undoubtedly, some event will take place that makes that outcome impossible to achieve.
It's advice that applies equally to lawyers for the plaintiff or defense. When I'm asked by a new client what a case is worth, I usually say something like this: "That's a good question, and I understand why you're asking, but it's just too early in the process to talk about the value of the case. I will tell you, though, that I think your case is a good one--good enough to invest my time and energy working on--and I think you're doing the right thing. I promise to keep you informed about what's happening at every step along the way, and at some point, we'll start talking about numbers. But it's too early now."
Conversations like this, of course, don't happen until after you agree to take on a new client. That's a momentous decision for any lawyer, as it will mark the beginning of a relationship that might last for years. All the better that you know what you're getting into ahead of time, which is the point of Calloway's article. He has a great list of issues and questions in his article, to which I'd add--
- What do you hope to achieve by filing a lawsuit? (You'll easily learn if the client's expectations are unreasonable or if there might be a better alternative than litigation);
- How did you find the firm? (A marketing question); and
- Have you ever filed a lawsuit before? (Beware of serial litigants).
And while Calloway says you might want to send a non-engagement letter (which I call a "rejection letter"), I think this is always a good practice. Include language about the statute of limitations in the letter, but also thank the client for thinking to ask you about his case. It's another chance to put you and your firm in a good light, even as you are turning down the case.