Five Tips for Paralegals Conducting Fact-Gathering Interviews
Most paralegals will conduct fact-gathering interviews at some point in their careers, and although there’s no set format you have to follow, there are some tips to remember that can help keep you on the right track.
Of course, pre-interview you should always do as much prep as possible by knowing the file in and out and by identifying what you seek to obtain from the questioning. Then, when formulating your questions and follow-ups, keep in mind these five tips for fact-gathering interviews:
1. The “Explain it to me like I’m a four-year-old” concept.
Do you remember in the film Philadelphia when Denzel Washington’s character keeps asking people to explain things to him like he’s a young child? Well this happens to be a great fact-gathering interview technique, although you don’t necessarily need to quote Denzel directly.
You and the interviewee may not have the same perception of terms or situations, so try your best to have him spell things out for you, i.e., what he means by “late at night,” particularly if the exact time is important to the case you’re working on.
2. Ask even when you know the answer.
Many times you will know a lot about a case before you even get to a fact-gathering interview, but always remember that you want the facts from your interviewee’s point of view. This means that even when you think you know, for example, which of your interviewee’s daughters she’s referencing, ask to be sure.
It’s better to have too much information recorded than not enough; as you well know, facts make or break cases, and a little clarification in the beginning can go a long way in the life of a case.
3. Don’t worry if interviewee’s version of facts is different than your current understanding.
Sometimes you’ll interview someone who is recounting an event in a way very different from how you have been led to believe it happened. By all means, elicit facts from the interviewee, but the fact-gathering interview is certainly not the place to grill or cross-examine him or openly address discrepancies.
If you feel it will help bring out salient facts, gently introduce contradictory ones you have in your notes just for clarification, but don’t pressure the interviewee to change his recitation of events. There will be time to parse out the truth later.
4. Use a combination of open-ended and closed-ended questions.
Open-ended questions are great for getting things started and letting your interviewee give her side of the story without any (or many) interruptions from you.
That said, she may offer commentary, information that is too general, and/or legal conclusions as opposed to the facts you’re looking to bring out; in these instances, it’s your job to redirect the questioning to specifics, using closed-ended (yes or no) questions to get the answers to the questions you need answered.
Incidentally, you can practice this interviewing tip in your daily life–even with your children, nieces, or nephews as you inquire about their school days.
5. Don’t let the interviewee know you think he’s lying.
Yes, one day an interviewee will look you straight in the eye and flat out lie. He knows he’s lying. You know he’s lying. But that doesn’t mean he has to know you know. Phew. Got that?If you’ve managed to develop a poker face over the years, now would be a good time to pull it out.
You can ask the interviewee to repeat certain things, reframe questions, etc., but don’t let on you don’t believe him; an offended witness can become very harmful to a case down the road.
Guest post by Michelle Fabio, About.com Guide to Law School, who also writes for LegalZoom.com and about choosing the right paralegal course for you at ParalegalCourse.org.
Additional info: Michelle Fabio, an American writer and attorney leaves the Anthracite Coal Region of Pennsylvania for her family’s ancestral village in Calabria, Italy, falls in love, adopts two dogs and three kids (baby goats), tends to chickens, rabbits, ducks, and a growing garden, writes to her heart’s content, and begins bleeding espresso. No, really. Read more at her blog http://www.bleedingespresso.com/.