Recently, while preparing for my first client meeting, it occurred to me that for the first time in my life, I had to play the role of a real lawyer. I found this idea very alarming. I was a student. I have always been a student. It is all I know. Seriously.
In fact, beginning in 1994, I have been a student for 19 consecutive years. After high school, I went straight to college to get my B.A., and after college I went straight to law school to get my J.D. Of course, I have had a few part-time jobs in the interim, working as a host, deli clerk, tutor, and server – I have even worked as an intern at a law firm. But despite all of these minimum wage experiences, I still had only mastered the occupation of “student.”
So there I sat, creating an agenda for my first client meeting, feeling quite lost. I already knew the project that I would be tackling for my client, but I had no idea how to elicit the information that I needed in order to proceed.
I found myself typing questions like, “What do you want done next,” “How would you prefer the project completed,” and, “When would you like it completed.”
As a student, and even as a law intern, these are typically the questions that I ask. In fact, a good student should ask these questions, and then simply comply with the answer given to him or her. But, unlike a student, a lawyer cannot simply ask the client for all of the answers concerning how to move forward in a case.
That is not to say that a client’s opinion on matters is irrelevant, but the client cannot be the one who independently decides the deadlines and subsequent steps in the case. The lawyer must work alongside the client to decide what the appropriate next steps in the case should be. Eliciting this information may seem simple, but when you have only ever taken direction in your life, turning the tables and leading a project can be quite daunting.
After some collaboration with my teammate and professor, I was finally able to begin understanding the tricks to running an effective client meeting, and my first client meeting was a success. I had reformulated my previous questions to be statements like, “We think that these might be appropriate next steps,” “The project could be completed in these ways,” and “We anticipate that the project will be completed by this date.” Following each of these statements, of course, the client was given the opportunity to voice any concerns or questions about the proposed proceedings in the case, and decisions were made based on our collective thoughts.
Rather than looking to the client to give me the answers that I naturally wanted by virtue of being a student, I was able to work with the client to arrive at those answers together, and it definitely worked. I had taken one step away form being a student, and one giant leap toward being a lawyer.
Needless to say, I still have a long way to come in regards to perfecting my lawyering skills, but I think it is safe to say that I am on my way.
The author is a student in the Housing and Community Development Legal Clinic. The opinions on this blog are that of the author and do not represent the opinions of the Clinic, the law school or the University.