Graham Robson on how the Client Interviewing Competition promotes interpersonal skills.

Like everyone else who studied law in the 70s, I learned black letter law at university. When I asked in the more interesting cases ‘what happened to the clients?’, I was taught that it was the precedent that was important, not the people involved. As a trainee and newly qualified solicitor, I discovered that actually clients were very important indeed. However, they weren’t walking and talking versions of the cases I had studied and their problems and lives seemed much messier than the subjects in the law degree syllabus. Later, working in the area of housing law, I discovered that while resolving some legal issues made me quite pleased, it didn’t necessarily resolve the problems my clients had.

Undoubtedly my poor skills in actually dealing with clients were probably in line with those of some of the trainees in Avrom Sherr’s ground breaking research,Lawyers and Clients: The First Meeting (Modern Law Review, Vol 49, issue 3, pages 323–357, May 1986). This empirical research showed ‘major deficiencies in the abilities of new entrants to the profession to carry out one of their most important functions, that of interviewer and counsellor’.

 This research was critical in firing up interest from academics and practitioners in legal skills. A competition for law students in client interviewing skills was started in 1984 by Sherr and Geoffrey Bindman. It was an important part of the groundswell that led to the introduction of client interviewing as a taught and assessed skill in the new LPC in 1993 and to its general inclusion in undergraduate as well as professional law courses.

Thirty-one years later, the competition not only still exists but goes from strength to strength. Law students in teams of two undertake initial interviews with a new client. The focus is thus on the critical stage of the start of the lawyer-client relationship. The client is an actor who has a carefully written brief. Practitioners, academics and counsellors from different fields assess the students using assessment criteria. In 1984 there was one national event sponsored by the Law Society. In 2015, 36 law schools took part in a variety of events. There was a national training day, three regional competitions and a finals event. National law firm Irwin Mitchell llp hosted the regional events in their offices in Sheffield, Birmingham and London. The Law Society provides annual prizes that help the  winning team go on to take part in the Brown Mosten International Client Consultation Competition. The quality of the competition was validated when the 2015 winning team from Manchester Metropolitan University went on to win the international competition in Lincoln, Nebraska, where 20 countries took part.

This might all appear somewhat surprising given the changing face of legal education and legal practice over that period of time. On the education front, clinical education now enables law students to work with real clients. As a training tool this has attractive advantages but is resource intensive and care has to be taken with the areas and level of work undertaken. The competition roles, however, can take on board not only more challenging types of work but more challenging types of client and ethical issues.

 In legal practice, streamlining processes can seek to mechanise case handling and reduce lawyer-client contact. Over the past four years, I have been involved in instructing two different firms of solicitors in connection with an injury to an elderly relative and a complicated piece of conveyancing involving the sale of an assisted living property (don’t go there). In neither case did I actually sit down and talk to the solicitor I was instructing. Increasingly, this is the way things are going. With people’s demands for instant responses, there is now a plethora of online resources where there will be no talking of any description.

So why are client interviewing skills still important? Clearly the demand for online services isn’t going to diminish any time soon but they will struggle to handle more complex and personal scenarios. Research shows that a large part of clients’ perceptions of satisfaction with lawyers isn’t just about the outcome of the process or case but about their dealings with their lawyer. I believe that the development of high-quality interpersonal skills leads to better legal practice. In the challenging economic environment in which solicitors now operate, an effective first interview is a win-win in terms of efficient case management and client satisfaction.

The competition emphasises the importance of the concept of the collaborative lawyer. The competition assessment criteria point out that the lawyers should assist the client in his or her understanding of problems and solutions and in making an informed choice, taking potential legal, economic, social and psychological consequences into account. As competition president, (the now) Sir Geoffrey Bindman QC said in 2013, A good lawyer needs empathy and the ability to see issues from a client’s point of view. It’s more than a good bedside manner. You need to put yourself in the shoes and mind of your client (NLJ, 13 April 2013).

The Client Interviewing Competition has huge benefits for those taking part. Students say it increases confidence and has led to work placements and training contracts. Few practitioners have the time to reflect on their own skills in this area and many have said that their involvement with the competition has enhanced their own learning and practice. A number of motivated and inspiring academics have been involved in the competition for many years (and we will not pretend some of them are not quite competitive).

The competition is still banging the drum about the importance of interpersonal skills in an age of increasingly impersonal exchanges. And despite its format  – try explaining how you can have a competition in interviewing people to your non-lawyer friends – it provides a friendly and supportive environment where students, academics and practitioners with great interpersonal skills can meet and exchange ideas about legal education and practice

Graham Robson is co-chair of The Client Interviewing Competition for England & Wales