CHAPTER FIVE – THE FIRST MEETING WITH THE CLIENT
The first meeting with a client to take instructions on a family law matter is foundational. It is likely to establish the Solicitor and client relationship for months and even years to come. For this reason careful thought needs to be given as to how the meeting is conducted, what is said and agreed and how the work is to be funded.
Each initial interview has four main goals:
- To get to know the client.
- To obtain important information.
- To reduce anxiety
- To clarify the clients’ expectations.
The first direct contact with your client will usually take place in a face-to-face meeting. Steps should be taken to ensure that the meeting is allocated to an appropriate Solicitor within the firm who can advise the client correctly. Ensure that the relationship with the client remains professional and inspires a high degree of confidence in the service given. The initial meeting will be an opportunity to obtain all the necessary and most relevant background information. It is important to remember that clients will not always know what is relevant and it is therefore important to ask probing questions and to elicit as much detail as possible.
You should maintain an objective approach whilst offering understanding, practical advice and support. Remember, however, that the client is there for legal assistance. You are not there to be a personal friend offering support or counselling. If the client does stray into areas that it would be more appropriate to be dealt with via counsellors, family therapists, parenting courses etc, you may be able to recommend such services and signpost them to agencies that can help.
- Ensure the interview is in private and take steps to avoid interruptions
Any meeting should be in a place where the discussions with your client will not be overheard. This will reassure the client as well as underlining confidentiality. An interview room specially allocated for this purpose is commonly used in many law firms. Avoid taking telephone calls and having interruptions. Turn off your mobile telephone.
- Allow sufficient time to cover matters adequately
The client must never feel the meeting is being rushed whilst discussing personal matters with you. Avoid a clash or overlap of appointments.
- Identity checks and money laundering
You can conduct an initial interview before verifying the client’s identity if you are only providing legal advice, and not doing transactional work. If you take on the client’s case you should verify their identity in line with the anti-money laundering regulations.
- Use of Pro forma
A client instruction sheet is a means of capturing all relevant client information. This includes: contact details, information about any children, partner’s details, accommodation, financial circumstances and the information required for example, a divorce petition. This may be completed in the meeting with the client or sent to the client in advance of a meeting.
- Give advice
Once you have taken the necessary information, you should advise the client accordingly. Sometimes your advice goes beyond what the client expects but this is necessary to provide the complete picture of the issues involved.
- Make a full attendance note
If possible, a full attendance note should be completed during the meeting itself either in outline or with full details. If this is not possible ensure that the attendance note is completed in full immediately after the meeting. It is common for solicitors to send a copy of this attendance note to the client following the meeting either attached to the client care letter or as a separate document. The client can be asked to confirm that the contents of the attendance note is agreed. This will avoid future misunderstandings as to the content and nature of the original discussions.
You should make it clear that you will deal with all matters in a confidential manner and that information regarding the case will not be disclosed to third parties without the client’s permission.
It can be difficult to address potential inconsistencies in a client’s account of facts at a first meeting when the lawyer/client relationship has not had the chance to develop. If there are any concerns, explain the duty of confidentiality owed to the client and the importance of being open and honest when providing instructions. Explain also the likely consequences of providing false and misleading information and that you have a duty not to mislead the court on any information provided.
Whilst confidentiality is being discussed, it is important to explain the exceptions. Where there are concerns regarding money laundering, or if there is a risk of significant physical or mental harm to a child and/or others, you should explain your duty not to withhold relevant information or to mislead the court either by actions or omissions.
If a client is unwilling to disclose information, you must emphasise the likelihood of any non-disclosure being discovered in due course, the risk of adverse inference and costs orders as a result.
- Explore the possibility of a reconciliation
Separating parties may wish to find out where they stand. Commencing proceedings or taking any steps may not be appropriate if they are not yet certain that the relationship is over. You should provide advice and referrals to any appropriate services if this is the case. As a Mediation Information & Assessment Meeting (MIAM) is obligatory in some cases, it has become common to discuss the various alternative methods of resolving family disputes. Depending on the circumstances an offer of direct discussion, mediation, collaborative law and arbitration can be an advantage for clients and should be discussed at the outset to inform of the full range of options available. Further details these options are found later in this handbook.
- Explain the approach you will take
It is worthwhile to explain early on that, whilst a robust approach may be adopted, you will comply with the Law Society, Chartered Institute of Legal Executives and Resolution Codes of Practice and that you will not conduct the litigation in any unduly confrontational way. Explain the benefits of working in this way. If the client has unrealistic expectations of what the proceedings may achieve, inform them as early as possible as to what may be a realistic outcome of the legal process. This can be linked with the discussion of alternative dispute resolution procedures which offer greater flexibility in finding tailored solutions.
- Explain your role
Many new clients will not have used a solicitor before so they won’t be familiar with the process. You should explain your role and the services you provide, as well as those you do not provide. You should also discuss your responsibilities and those of your client. Confirm these details in writing, the name and status of the person dealing with the case and the person with overall responsibility.
Discuss the timescales for completing any work. It is often difficult to give accurate times and dates when events will take place so you should be cautious about giving precise information. If you do so, you should make it clear that many matters within court proceedings are outside your professional control and that you cannot be bound to such information.
- Advice or support services from third parties
Consider whether it is worthwhile for the client to seek further advice on specific points at this stage for example, on tax or financial planning issues. If so, try to make a recommendation based on the client’s needs and personality. Consider providing any documentation straightaway to enable progress. In financial matters, consider providing a blank Form E so the client can start collating the relevant information and decide whether third party advice is needed such as information as the value of the matrimonial home or the current value of a pension fund.
- Provide details of your future costs
It is often difficult to provide an accurate estimate of costs at the outset of a case, but it is essential that the client can make an informed decision regarding the risks of litigation and other options available. It is also important to explain the potential risks of a costs award being made against a party within proceedings.
Under the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) Standards and Regulations, you must give your client the best information possible about the likely overall cost of a matter at the start, and as their matter progresses. These may include:
- agreeing a fixed fee
- giving a realistic estimate of the overall cost
- giving a forecast within a possible range, or
- explaining why costs cannot be fixed or realistically estimated
You must explain how charges are calculated, and you should provide information at the first interview on:
- hourly rates and an estimate of the time to be charged
- whether rates are likely to increase
- expected disbursements and when they will be due
- potential liability for others’ costs
This information must be confirmed in writing following the first meeting and before any work is undertaken on behalf of the client.
- Consider Unbundling
Law firms are becoming increasingly flexible in terms of the services they provide. If a client does not want a solicitor to conduct the entire case on their behalf, it can sometimes be possible to have an “unbundled” service. This means that the solicitor acts for the client in certain parts of the case and the client deals with other parts as a Litigant in Person, although the solicitor is available to give advice if needed. This can be a much more cost-effective way of dealing with a matter. You may wish to discuss this option with your client at the initial meeting.
- Take copies of all relevant documents
The client may hand you documents you have requested to comply with the money laundering regulations. It is important that you take copies for your file returning the originals to your client for safe keeping. There may also be other documents which you need to see and take copies of, for example, divorce papers or a court application. It is good practice to take copies for your file and return the original documents to the client. This will ensure that your client has all the information in their possession for future reference.
- Give the client appropriate leaflets
This can cover the subjects discussed but also other information to assist the client. Some lawyers often prepare booklets and brochures that are handed to family law clients at the first meeting.