hundreds of articles by subject
The Listserv is a free, e-mail discussion group. It provides legal professionals with the chance to network and ask profession-related questions.
This long-running column examines ethics in the paralegal profession. Do you have an ethical dilemma or question? E-mail us today.
How To Interview Clients
A paralegal's guide to taking initial calls from personal injury clients.
Editorís note: This article introduces a new, regular feature that will cover a variety of topics in a how-to format. Each article will be written by an expert and walk you step-by-step through the topic discussed.
Your first contact from the client likely will be by telephone. If you are fortunate enough to have the client call soon after the incident, your firm will have the opportunity to orchestrate and control the case from the very beginning. This aspect is crucial to any small personal injury case because it gives your firm a tremendous advantage in maximizing the damages. As a paralegal, you can help your legal team avoid common pitfalls that occur during a personal injury case, many of which are caused by the clientís own conduct or failure to act.
When your firm receives the first telephone call, the object is to put the client at ease and elicit confidence in the attorney and the firm. This easily can be done if you follow the simple format outlined in this article. Assure the potential plaintiff that his or her call will be returned as soon as possible, even if itís after hours. Once the client is reached, the following information should be elicited.
Questions to Ask a Potential Client
If your legal team asks a series of questions at the outset, the prospective client will know your firm has a grasp of personal injury law and, more importantly, that the attorney is interested in the case. The following is a list of potential questions your attorney might ask in the first telephone conference. The questions donít have to be answered in detail but after learning the answers, your attorney will have some idea as to the basic value of the case and will have at least an initial assessment of the potential client.
1. What was the date of incident? If the incident happened recently, your firm will be able to control the case from this point forth. If the incident happened quite some time ago or if the statute of limitations is approaching, be aware that the client might already have compromised his own case.
2. How did the incident happen? This is extremely important in determining the liability question. If the client fell down his own set of stairs or drove his automobile off the road into a tree, your attorney might not want to waste more time discussing the case. If the client is vague or evasive as to how the incident happened, you can be sure that the rest of the case might be quite difficult.
3. Where did the incident occur? This question is important because it determines the appropriate venue if the case proceeds to suit. If the incident happened in your county or locality, then the convenience of trying the case will make a difference.
4. What injuries occurred? And how adept is the client in explaining the nature of these injuries?
5. What are the present physical complaints? This element also goes to the potential damage question. It would be premature to make a final assessment with this question, but if the injuries took place and have resolved with little difficulty, the potential value of the case can be assessed at this point.
6. Were there any witnesses? This element will help your attorney take control of an important liability factor. If the incident is serious and there are witnesses to the incident, they should be approached as soon as possible.
7. What medical facilities or physicians treated the client? If the potential client has not yet seen a doctor or visited a medical facility, serious doubt will be shed on the damage issue unless the accident just happened. The names of the facilities and physicians also will assist in the initial determination of damages. Has the client seen an orthopedic surgeon or a chiropractor? Did the client go to a walk-in medical clinic or a hospital? Were X-rays taken or did the doctor make a diagnosis based upon just history and examination?
8. Does the client have insurance? If the client has no insurance, your attorney immediately should realize the necessity of clear liability and a defendant with insurance or assets. If the client has plenty of insurance, this also will determine, to some extent, the clientís character and stature in the community.
9. Has the client had contact with any insurance companies? If the incident happened quite some time ago and there has been no contact with the clientís own carrier, you should question why. If the carriers have been contacted, then you donít have the problem of notice.
10. Where is the item that caused the injuries? If an automobile, product or faulty stair has caused the injuries, pictures should be taken as soon as possible before repair. If itís a products liability case, then the item should be preserved immediately.
11. Have any pictures been taken? If pictures have not been taken, instruct the client to do so immediately. If they have been taken, they should be brought to the initial interview for assessment. If itís an automobile case, the extent of damage to the vehicle will give excellent insight into the liability and damage criteria.
12. Has the client contacted any other attorneys? If the potential client is shopping around, beware. Either the other firms are not interested or the potential client is looking for the answers he or she wants to hear.
13. How did the client obtain your firmís name? If the case has been referred by a respected client, you will have some idea as to the confidence your potential client has in your firm. The source of referral also will give you some insight into the sincerity of the potential client.
14. Has the client had contact with an insurance adjuster? If the client already has been contacted by an insurance adjuster, a substantial amount of time and effort can be saved in making the first contact to the insurance company. If the incident happened several weeks or longer before the phone call, you might have difficulty in making first contact with the insurance carrier.
What to Tell the Client
After you have received answers to some or all of the questions, your attorney will have a pretty good idea as to whether or not the case is worth exploring. If your attorney believes itís likely your firm will accept the case, set up an appointment and instruct the client on what to do before coming to the office. The following list includes instructions your attorney might ask you to give to the client.
See a doctor. If the client has not yet seen a doctor or visited a medical facility, tell him or her to do so immediately if he or she is in pain or having physical difficulties. Itís appropriate to recommend the client to a specific facility, but I donít recommend referring him or her to a specific physician at this stage.
Donít work with pain. Tell the client that if working causes difficulties, substantial discomfort or pain, the client should inquire of his or her doctor about staying out of work temporarily. If the client has been told by the doctor that the decision to work is up to the client, instruct the client that he or she should not be working if his or her employment causes pain or substantial discomfort.
Obtain pictures. Instruct the client to obtain pictures of the subject automobile, place of injury if itís a premises liability case or item that caused the injury if itís a product liability case.
Obtain a damage appraisal. If the clientís automobile has been damaged, tell the client to have the damage appraised as soon as possible after all the photos have been taken.
Obtain witness contact in≠formation. Tell the client to bring in the names, address≠es and telephone numbers of any witnesses to the incident. The importance of this information must be emphasized to the client.
Donít discuss the case with witnesses. With respect to witnesses, instruct the client not to discuss the case other than to obtain names, addresses and telephone numbers.
Donít discuss the case in detail. Instruct the client not to discuss the case in detail with anyone and not to give statements to anyone from an insurance company.
Obtain insurance contact information. If the client has been contacted by an insurance company, itís imperative that he or she obtain the name of the adjuster and the telephone number. Instruct the client to inform the adjuster he or she will be consulting with an attorney and that the attorney will be in touch with the insurance adjuster.
Bring documentation. Instruct the client to bring in any documents relating to his or her case such as medical bills, doctorís instructions, prescriptions and accident reports filed with the Secretary of State.
Obtain a police report. If the client is able, have him or her obtain the police report before coming to the office.
Donít delay the first meeting. Tell the client that the first appointment is extremely important and that it should not be postponed unless the circumstances absolutely require it.
Ask questions. Tell the client that time is of the essence and if itís necessary to answer any questions in the meantime, your firm will be available.
Concern yourself with your recovery. Tell the client his or her primary duty at this time is to be comfortable and to pursue recovery of his or her injuries ó the legal details are for your firm to worry about and his or her physical recovery is of the utmost importance.
Creating a Bond
Because you have invested time asking questions and the potential client has invested time answering them, there already is a line of communication ó a bond, if you will ó between the legal team and the client. This bond will lead the potential client into a sense of commitment and he or she will be unlikely to call another firm.
Ellsworth T. ďDerryĒ Rundlett III is a past president of the Maine Trial Lawyers Association and has over 34 years of experience trying personal injury cases. He is the author of ďMaximizing Damages in Small Personal Injury CasesĒ (www.JamesPublishing.com or (800) 440-4780), from which this article is excerpted.
© Legal Assistant Today Magazine