Preparing for the Interview
Whether the interview is a fact-gathering interview or a follow-up interview, good preparation is the key to a successful outcome. Preparation is more than just defining the goals of the interview. Good preparation also involves considerations of knowledge of the information in the file, the physical setting of the interview, the appearance of the interviewer, and the tone of the interview.
Knowledge of the File
Be sure to know the file before conducting an interview. Unless you are conducting an initial client interview, it is likely that there is information in the file. There may be correspondence with a witness, a statement on a police report, or a document signed by the witness. Be familiar with this information — no one likes to answer repetitive questions.
The Physical Setting
Where you conduct an interview is almost as important as how the interview is conducted. We have been speaking about interviews as if they were all conducted in a lawyer's office. In fact, a busy paralegal must be prepared to conduct interviews at the client's place of business, in the client's home, on the street, in a courthouse hallway, or at the local diner. An interview takes place whenever the paralegal talks to someone who possesses knowledge about a legal matter.
No matter where the interview takes place, you should pay attention to certain things. First, minimize interruptions. This is more easily accomplished in your own office — close your door, send phone calls to voice mail, put your computer to sleep, and clear the space of any material not related to the matter at hand. Whether the interviewee is a client or a witness, their time is important. Do not allow distractions to intrude on the interview process if you can help it.
Minimizing interruptions is more difficult in other physical settings. If you are in the client's place of business and the client interrupts the interview, there is little you can do. Remain calm and professional. Remember where you were when the interruption occurred. Start at that point when the interruption is over. Do not give any sign that the interruption affected your train of thought in any way.
Second, consider the seating arrangements. The goal here is to be efficient while, at the same time, putting the interviewee at ease. Many interviewers simply place the interviewee on the opposite side of the table and begin asking questions. They do not realize that this arrangement seems very much like an interrogation to the interviewee. This is especially true if the interviewer is referring to notes or documents. Many successful interviews are conducted in this manner, but this technique is not appropriate for all situations.
Another technique is to forego the use of a table or desk and sit in a more conversational arrangement. This more relaxed approach can make the interviewee more comfortable and willing to talk. It is difficult to take or use notes when using this technique. For that reason, this technique is not well suited to lengthy interviews that cover a variety of topics.
A side-by-side arrangement is helpful if the interview will call for review of documents or exhibits. The questioner and the interviewee are both able to see the document without straining. Documents can be easily passed back and forth. This technique also provides space if it is necessary to spread out a series of exhibits.
Witnesses who allow constant interruptions when talking to their legal representative sometimes do so because they do not realize the importance of the information you are seeking. You can forestall this reaction by starting the interview with an explanation of the purpose of the interview, a general description of what you hope to discover, and why the witness is the appropriate person to provide the needed information.
Finally, consider issues of personal space. Some people require more space and find closeness intimidating. The appropriate amount of personal space varies with the circumstances. A discussion about a claimed breach of contract will not elicit a need for physical closeness. Physical distance during an interview with a battered spouse may, however, convey lack of empathy.
The Tone of the Interview
As important as the physical setting, the tone of the interview may vary with the purpose of the interview or the subject of the interview. The tone may even change during the course of an interview. In all cases, however, the paralegal should take the lead in setting the tone.
The vast majority of paralegal interviews are conducted to obtain information. This process is much easier if a friendly tone is established. The paralegal must be able to put the interviewee at ease before beginning questioning. This can be done in a variety of ways. Since most interviewees are nervous about meeting with a paralegal, an explanation of the purpose of the interview and how the information from the interview will be used is helpful. Allowing the interviewee to ask questions about the process before beginning the interview also relaxes the interviewee.
Always remember that the interviewee is doing you a favor. This is true whether the interviewee is a client, an employee of a client, or a witness. The interviewee does not have to talk to you. Acknowledge that by thanking the interviewee for their time. Promise to be expeditious in completing the interview. Be certain you know if there are any limitations on the availability of the interviewee and respect them.