Interviewing older clients

Clients do not always understand how a lawyer can help them. You need good interviewing skills to elicit all the information relevant to the client’s case and to take full instructions.

Your approach

Try to alleviate stress. If your client is fearful or anxious, it will hinder communication. If your client is very distressed, you may need to refer them to a social worker or doctor.

Be aware of ageist attitudes and behaviour affecting your client (for example, overprotective behaviour by, or an overdeveloped sense of entitlement in, adult children). Encourage your client to consider their assets as their own, and to assert their own interests. Take the approach that you are developing awareness in your client to reduce their vulnerability.

Be aware of your client’s expectations.

Age-related needs and health issues

Older clients may need more time. Allow enough time for the appointment or set up a series of short appointments.

Appointments earlier in the day may be preferable, and you may need to interview an older client in a more relaxed and quiet environment. Are home visits possible?  If your client feels unduly pressured by time or other people, this may indicate undue influence.

If your client is suffering from illness, is in pain or is taking medication or other drugs, their ability to absorb, understand, or remember information, or to sit through a long appointment, may be affected.

If your client suffers from hearing or visual difficulties, cater to their needs by:

  • providing written information in large print;
  • identifying yourself and introducing anyone else in the room whom they may not be able to see;
  • speaking into your client’s portable listening device or investing in a hearing amplifier;
  • maintaining eye contact if the client lip reads;
  • using a quiet room with no background noise;
  • carrying a magnifying glass for documents to be read.

Language and cultural issues

Always use a properly qualified, professional interpreter if required (see Interpreter services in Resources). Do NOT use a family member. Be aware that your client may be literate in their first language but not in English, or literate in neither, and so may need documents translated or read to them by an interpreter. (See Commercial Bank of Australia v Amadio (1983) 151 CLR 447 where the client’s age and limited English were considered a special disability relevant to the solicitor’s duty to communicate effectively.)

Be aware of any cultural issues that might affect your client’s ability to speak openly or affect the way they see their responsibilities and options (see Being aware of diversity).

In the interview

Use simple, everyday clear English. Avoid jargon and legalese.

Practise active listening skills. Remember to:

  • face your client (there may also be hearing difficulties);
  • focus on what your client is saying and maintain eye contact;
  • minimise distractions such as other sounds, your mobile, answering machine;
  • make appropriate responses such as ‘What did she say then?’;
  • ask questions for clarification but try not interrupt them. For example, ‘So you are telling me …’;
  • not make assumptions about your client.

Ask open-ended questions such as ‘What sort of decisions can your attorney make for you?’ rather than questions that just require a yes or no.

Frame your questions to quickly identify any areas where a person may need support or require a substitute decision-maker (see Substitute decision-making). For example,  ‘Will anyone else be affected by the contract? Will anyone benefit from the contract? Who? Tell me about some of the important parts of the contract?’

Establish what your client needs to know. For example, you may need to educate a donor about the consequences of a power of attorney, and the attorney about their responsibilities.

Do not give your client too much information without asking them, at regular intervals, to tell you what they have understood. Be wary of an older person agreeing with your questions just to avoid appearing difficult, to avoid embarrassment or to placate you. (This tendency to gratuitous concurrence in an older person was referred to as ‘Noddy syndrome’ in Nicholson v Knaggs [2009] VSC 64 at para 382.)

Convey information in different ways by giving your client something to take away with them, such as some notes, a brochure, a tape of your interview.

After the interview

Follow up with a clear, simple letter that confirms instructions and covers the main points – use short sentences and a large font if necessary. Include the Telephone Interpreter Service number if your client needs to have the letter translated (see Interpreter services in Resources).

For more on interviewing, see 

Lawyer’s Practice Manual, Ch. A, paras [A.101]–[A.312]