Client Interviews

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Background

The initial client interview is an essential part of the attorney-client relationship, as it affords the defense lawyer an opportunity to get to know the defendant and begin to understand the basic facts of the case. During the initial interview the defense lawyer will learn critical information such as the identity of witnesses, the identity of co-defendants, the location of evidence, and details concerning any potential violations of the defendant's legal rights. This information is vital to the development of a successful defense strategy and should be obtained as quickly as practicable. Developing a good defense extends beyond just understanding your client's version of the events. While it is important to know your client's "story," it is also important to test that story against what others say. For example, if your client denies that he assaulted another, you should learn from others whether he is known to be a violent person. You should also consider whether, for example, the alleged victim is much larger than the defendant and therefore an unlikely target for assault. The defense lawyer should use the initial interview as a forum to advise the defendant of his legal rights, explain the parameters of the attorney-client relationship, and discuss the legal procedures involved in the case.

The Process

The initial client interview allows the defense lawyer to learn about the defendant's story in the defendant's own words. The defense lawyer should encourage the defendant to give an uninterrupted narrative of the relevant events, remaining sensitive to the fact that the defendant may be nervous about telling his story to a stranger or he may be unprepared to tell the truth in the initial interview. After the client has furnished his uninterrupted version of events, ask follow up questions to obtain details. The defense lawyer can put the defendant at ease and facilitate open communication by minimizing distractions in the room, maintaining eye contact, using encouraging body language (such as leaning forward and nodding his head), repeating back what the defendant says, taking notes, and asking appropriate follow up questions. The defense lawyer should explain to the defendant that all of their discussions, including the initial interview, are confidential and protected by the attorney-client privilege. The defense lawyer should instruct the defendant not to talk to anyone else about the case, including co-defendants, friends and family members, before first talking about the case to the defense lawyer. The defendant should do the majority of the talking during the initial interview.

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Tips for the Interview

In order to provide the most effective legal representation, the defense lawyer should meet with the defendant as soon as possible to conduct an initial interview. The defense lawyer should make sure to set aside enough time to conduct a thorough interview. In preparation for the initial interview, the defense lawyer should become familiar with the elements of the defendant's alleged crime and its accompanying punishment. If possible, the defense lawyer should also obtain copies of any relevant documents such as arrest warrants, search warrants, police reports, and any additional documents that relate to the criminal charges. The inability to obtain these documents should not delay the interview. (If these cannot be obtained before the initial interview, they should be obtained as soon as possible following the interview.) Finally, the defense lawyer should be aware of the legal criteria for obtaining release of the defendant prior to Trial.

Sample Background Topics

During the initial interview the defense lawyer should obtain the following background information from the defendant. This information allows the defense lawyer to get to know the defendant, as well as informs the lawyer's defense strategy.

  • Name
  • Address
  • Telephone Number(s)
  • Date of Birth
  • Ties to the community (including time at current address, family relationships, immigration status (if applicable))
  • Height, Weight, and Identifying Features
  • Armed Services History
  • Educational History
  • Employment History
  • Criminal History
  • Family History
  • Physical and Mental Health
  • Immediate Medical Needs
  • Emergency Contact Information

Sample Interview Topics

The purpose of the initial client interview is both to acquire information from the defendant regarding the relevant events surrounding the alleged crime and to provide the defendant with an understanding of the anticipated legal progression of the case. The following are general topics that the defense lawyer should cover with the defendant in the initial interview, in addition to obtaining the defendant's version of events and the names of possible witnesses. Of course, topics that are covered will depend upon the nature of the offense with which the defendant is charged (e.g., drug offense vs. physical assault).

Details of the Arrest

  • Date and time of the arrest
  • Location of the arrest
  • Name of person(s) who made the arrest
  • Reason given for arrest
  • Existence of an arrest warrant
  • Name of any witnesses to the arrest
  • Name of any additional individuals who were also arrested

Search and Seizure

  • Date and time of search
  • Location of search
  • Name of person(s) who conducted search
  • Details of how search was conducted
  • Whether defendant consented to search
  • Existence of a search warrant
  • Reason given for search
  • Description of items seized (if applicable)
  • Location(s) of seizure
  • Reason given for seizure
  • Whether any tests were performed on defendant's body or bodily fluids
  • Identity of any witnesses to the search and seizure
  • Identity of any additional individuals who were also searched

Interrogation

  • Date, time, and length of interrogation
  • Location of interrogation
  • Name of person(s) who conducted interrogation
  • Details of how interrogation began
  • Substance of the interrogation
  • Existence of any recorded statements
  • Defendant's physical and mental status at time of statement
  • Details of how statements were recorded
  • Identity of any witnesses to the interrogation
  • Identify of any additional individuals who were also interrogated
  • Request for lawyer

Detention

  • Date and time of detention
  • Location of detention
  • Existence of any violence or threats

Information about the alleged victim (if any)

  • Identity of the victim
  • Relationship with the victim

Information about the co-defendants

  • Identity of co-defendants
  • Relationship with co-defendants
  • Custodial status of co-defendants

Criminal Charges

  • Understanding of criminal charges
  • Understanding of possible defenses
  • Potential alibi
  • Ability to make bail

Follow Up

  • Identity of witnesses who should be contacted
  • Identity of evidence that should be preserved
  • Visit to scene of crime

Interviewing the Defendant's Family Members

A defendant's family members can provide valuable information that will aid in preparing a successful defense. In order to obtain the most candid and truthful information possible, it is best to interview family members one at a time in a setting outside of the defense lawyer's office. The following is a list of information the defense lawyer should obtain in interviews with the defendant's family members.

  • Brief description of defendant's life
  • Understanding of defendant's family tree
  • Family members' and defendant's ties to the community
  • Family members' and defendant's medical history
  • Family members' and defendant's employment history
  • Family members' and defendant's educational background
  • Family members' and defendant's criminal records

Interviewing a Mentally Disabled Defendant

Defending a mentally disabled client poses additional considerations for the defense lawyer. Many initial interviews with mentally disabled defendants will take place in a hospital or institutional setting. In such circumstances, the defense lawyer should be careful to explain that he is an attorney and not a member of the hospital staff. The defense lawyer should explain to the mentally disabled defendant that their conversations are confidential and should not be discussed with the hospital staff. Evidence of a mental disability is of paramount importance to the formation of the defense lawyer's strategy, as it can be used to prove that the defendant lacked the criminal intent to carry out the alleged crime. Whether the defendant is institutionalized or not, the defense lawyer should closely observe the defendant for signs that he possess a mental disability. The defense lawyer should also seek information related to a possible mental disability through interviews with the defendant's family members. The defense lawyer will most likely want to seek an expert opinion to evaluate the defendant's mental condition and aid in forming the most effective defense strategy.

Interviewing a Juvenile Defendant

A juvenile defendant also presents a series of challenges for the defense lawyer, one of the most important being the potential conflict of interest between the parent and the juvenile defendant. To avoid potential complications, at the start of the initial interview the defense lawyer should make clear that he represents the child and that in the event of a disagreement between the parent and the child, the lawyer must act on behalf of the child, not the parent. The defense lawyer must also consider whether or not the parent should remain in the room for the initial interview. To preserve the attorney-client privilege, the defense lawyer may want to conduct the initial interview of a juvenile defendant without the defendant's parent present. Yet, other considerations such as the juvenile's age, mental condition, and stated preference may favor the parent's presence at the interview, despite the potential compromise of privilege. The defense counsel should be sensitive to the unique needs of the child defendant, who may be even more nervous and anxious at an initial client interview than his adult counterpart. Juvenile defendants may require more follow up questions and additional explanation of the process. The defense lawyer should make sure the juvenile defendant understands everything discussed in the initial client interview and should conclude the interview with an opportunity for the juvenile to ask questions.


Client Interview Forms