We have written extensively about the importance of good interview skills, in our blog entries “What Greg Smith and Goldman Sachs Tell Us About Investigations” and “Hiring Due Diligence Should Include an Attitude Check.” Professionals whose work depends on their ability to interview well—investigators, journalists, lawyers, doctors—know that it’s an art, honed by a keen understanding of the mindset of people in turmoil and a lot of trial and error about what does and does not work. It’s about knowing how to listen, knowing when to respond and when to stay silent, knowing when it’s the right time to ask a question and when it’s best to wait.
And it’s also about having enough humility to recognize that you are beholden to the client to help set you on the right track. As a recent article by attorneys Olivier Taillieu and Mark Wolf in the ABA Journal “Litigation” points out, a law client’s most valuable assets are their knowledge and experience. The same holds true for corporate investigation clients. A successful investigation starts with a successful client interview.
Interviews need to be approached the same way a database search is approached—with an open mind and a lot of patience. At the start of an investigation, clients know more about their finances than you do:
- Clients have greater insight about who in their company or among their business or social acquaintances may be able to provide useful information.
- They know who they’ve sued or been sued by in the past, and can provide information about the parties involved in these past cases and claims.
- They can help jumpstart an investigation by granting leave to speak with other investigators or attorneys they’ve worked with whom might have information relevant to the current situation.
- They may know other people who have sued their current adversary and may have insight that could prove crucial to researching an issue. As Taillieu and Wolf candidly point out, attorneys are often “eager to help put the screws to their former adversaries. Never underestimate the power of grudges.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean that an investigator is just passively listening while a client tells their story. It’s crucial to be engaged and ready to ask the right questions at the right time. Clients have a fountain of information but that doesn’t mean they know what to tell you. Even the most sophisticated client may not know what it is you need to know to do your job. A good investigator patiently asks questions to help access that information.
And what are the right questions? Well, they may be the most basic ones, the ones that seem obvious if we’re not making any assumptions or guesses about the case. It’s always a challenge to shut off that voice in our head that starts taking shortcuts and generating assumptions. But you know what they say about assumptions, right? Well, it’s true. So give yourself permission to ask even the most obvious questions to help ensure that you have all the information you need. It might be helpful to have a checklist of all the basic information that you’ve found helpful to have in previous cases to help steer your client on the right path. See the list we have for divorce clients at our entry, “Thinking About Divorce? The Essential Checklist.”
And of course, make sure to keep the lines of communication with the client open. Some clients may think that after the initial interview, they get to just sit back and wait for you to work your magic. They may need to be reminded that investigations are often collaborative efforts, and their job is to keep providing you with information, be it something they forgot to tell you the first time around or something new, that comes up afterwards. They need to know that you won’t be bothered or annoyed if two hours, two days or two weeks from that initial appointment they call or email with just “One more thing….”