Defining the Goals of the Interview
All interviews have goals. The fact-gathering interview may only elicit general facts. Legal analysis and application of law to facts will come later. A follow-up interview, on the other hand, may be devoted solely to the application of law to facts. Determining the goal of the interview is a critical component of conducting an effective interview.
The first step in defining the goal of any interview is to carefully review the assignment. If the assignment is to “interview Mrs. Smith and get the necessary information so we can start her divorce,” you will approach the interview in a different way than if the assignment is to “get the necessary information from Mrs. Smith so we can prepare her will.” The former is much more definite and focused; the latter is open and undefined.
Whether the assignment is focused or open, the interview has a goal. Each assignment describes the desired end. Each assignment provides the legal context so the paralegal can approach the interview with an overall structure in mind.
Some assignments lack a clear statement of goal, as when the supervising attorney says, “Go talk to John Jones and find out what he knows about the client's accident.” If you receive this kind of an assignment, you should request additional information. Who is John Jones? Why do we think he knows anything about the accident? Do we think he will help the client or hurt the client? What is the critical information we think John Jones has? The answers to these questions will help define the goal of the initial interview with John Jones.
The task of defining the goals of an interview is often daunting to a new paralegal. Inexperience leads to a fear of forgetting a crucial area of questioning. A possible solution is for the paralegal to use a checklist.
A checklist is an outline of the major issues in a particular area of the law.
Some law firms maintain checklists for recurring issues such as initial interviews of clients or specific issues requiring detailed information. Checklists are also available from several commercial sources. In either case, a checklist is designed as an aid to a full and complete interview process.
A checklist is only a guide. It would be a mistake for a paralegal to assume that obtaining responses to questions on a checklist constitutes an effective interview. A checklist is, by its very nature, generic. It may include questions that are irrelevant to the specific issue at hand and may omit other important information. The paralegal must be flexible and alert when using a checklist.
Conversations with witnesses rarely follow a prescribed format. If you try to force a witness to provide facts in the order called for in a checklist, you will quickly frustrate the witness and cut off the natural flow of information. A good interviewer knows when to abandon the checklist in the interest of obtaining as much information as possible.
Always remember that all legal problems depend on facts. When in doubt, opt for gathering more facts rather than less.