Your client is being deposed by Bill, a partner at one of the most prestigious law firms in town. Bill asks your client when he last saw Ms. Davies before the accident at work. Confident in your client’s answer, you scroll down your notes, readying yourself for the smooth sailing that will become the home stretch of what would otherwise be a long litigation process, ending in a big win for your client and, of course, you.
Feeling as if someone spills icewater on all of your internal organs, your face goes flush and your heart stops when your client responds to Bill differently than how you had scripted. Your whole defense was based on when your client last saw Ms. Davies and thus that one small detail that you knew you had 100% solidified was somehow altered.
So how did Bill get different information from your client than you did? Was your client lying to you the entire time? How did you not notice? Or maybe your client changed his mind about what had happened at the last minute? Bill is a master manipulator, but he wouldn’t coerce a false response that easily, would he? Of course he didn’t, because you had no room to object to any of his questions!
So you have come to the conclusion that you failed to get the correct information from your client and Bill did.
The truth is, there are many reasons why things may go wrong in a client-attorney relationship. Communication between humans is often a perilous endeavor. Experiences and emotions create biases. Experience and repetition create assumptions. Memories are malleable.
…and that’s just within ourselves!
Those many intricacies of our human selves go on to plague our exchanges with all kinds of issues. That’s when things get really complicated. So how do you deal with all of the interpersonal and intrapersonal issues that manifest themselves in communication?
A systematic approach to questioning is what Bill used to get his information. That’s all. No tricks or manipulations. Your client wasn’t lying to you, but his information was wrong. Your questions were straightforward. You asked them more than once. What did Bill do differently?
Bill took a step back and used the power of a chronology (aka: timeline) to help him get accurate and complete information. Of course you used a chronology, right? Well, you had your client give you a chronology. Your client didn’t know it, but the timeline of events he gave to you was a bit off. There could be many reasons for this, but let’s focus on what Bill did right that you didn’t. Bill started with a concrete time event. The beginning of the work day: 9 a.m.
“What happened when you arrived at work?” Bill asks.
“I clocked in, then walked to the back office for the safety meeting.” Your client replies.
“Then what happened?”
… and so on.
Your point of reference was on the end state. The time of the accident. Ms. Davies’ appearance. All of which is subjective when dealing with time. You weren’t working with a concrete foundation. A small detail in the process ended up collapsing the building you had constructed. Your client’s memory of events was as scattered as the questioning techniques you used to help him fill in the blanks. Bill’s questioning was neat, methodical, and meticulous.
Although imperfect, the brain will file and catalog events in chronological order. It’s important that you retrieve it from them in the same manner. Think of a good chronology as watching a movie. You start at the beginning and let it go through until the end. Starting at the climax, then working your way backwards and playing at interesting parts to get the details doesn’t make sense. It would be confusing and incomplete.
By no means did Bill get this information based solely on a chronology. Good questioning techniques that left no room for subjectivity helped create this timeline. Assumptions by both himself and your client were addressed through good questioning techniques. Bill was disciplined in utilizing a system that sounded almost mechanical in nature, thus he succeeded.
Maximizing client-attorney interactions takes place since the intake call. That’s where a basic understanding of your client’s situation occurs and if they don’t have confidence in your ability to take the correct and complete information, they may go elsewhere with their case. If you operate with their case under a false premise because of poor questioning techniques, you can expect situations such as this one to occur.
Click below for details on how you and your colleagues can greatly improve your questioning techniques and on many other subjects beneficial to your practice: