The International Client Consultation Competition – a judge’s reflections

On 4 and 5 April 2013, I acted as a judge in the preliminary rounds of the Brown-Mosten International Client Consultation Competition (the ICCC) at the University of Glasgow. What follows is a very personal set of reflections and insights on those two days. I hope this will also be of interest to others, but that disclaimer should serve to explain the inevitable egocentricity of this blog.

Whilst speaking of egocentricity, I should stress that I am not using this blog to somehow “big-up” myself for being asked to be a judge. To be clear, I was delighted to be asked to be a judge by the University of Glasgow’s anchor of the ICCC, Eileen Paterson, and it does sound like a bit of an acclaim to be so asked. I will promptly disclaim that acclaim. My involvement was predicated on my involvement in the Scots inter-university competition (the competition that presages the international competition by providing regional representatives to the ICCC, as detailed in these Canadian and English and Welsh resources) and not much more. Well, I have had a few years of trying my best to be an all-round good guy and doing a bit of lawyering here and there, but (other than sitting politely through a briefing for judges) I did not have to prove myself as a judge to anyone beyond that. If there is a debate about whether I should have had to, I will leave that to someone else. Suffice it to say, I was installed in two different panels of three for two preliminary rounds and I tried my best to apply the marking criteria as fairly as I could.

Whilst speaking of marking criteria, I suppose I had better explain what the whole contest is about and, as such, what conduct is being marked and then rewarded. Other resources are available to explain that, with the ICCC website being a sensible place to start. The competition puts teams of two law students into a (simulated) client interview situation. That client has a legal problem of some sort (perhaps a criminal or employment law matter), and the interviewing pair must work together to ascertain relevant information, explain what next steps they should take, effectively conclude the interview, then quickly reflect in oral conversation within the pair on how they think they got on and what they might improve, all within 45 minutes. All of this is marked by reference to eleven marking criteria. Complicated, eh? It is certainly a bit tricky to capture that in a snappy sound-bite.

Whilst speaking of sound-bites, here are my attempts at snappy explanations of the ICCC, which I deploy depending on who I am speaking to. The first quick simplification I offer to anyone who knows about law schools set in the adversarial tradition is mooting for pacifists. Why? The ICCC offers an alternative co-curricular activity for those not interested in the pomp and circumstance of a mock trial (further details of what a moot is can be found via the University of Aberdeen Mooting Society here). It also offers an opportunity for mooters to develop a different skill-set in tandem to poring over legal authorities then presenting on same to a judge. That is where my quick-fire explanation of mooting for pacifists is a simplification too far, which is further laid bare in my second explanation of the ICCC as a mock interview competition. It gives students the opportunity to participate in what is perhaps the most realistic, practical training that the whole law school experience can provide. Quite a claim, but to explain not all lawyers will need to stand up and advocate something in court or write a lengthy report (or essay) and even less will have to answer a series of questions in a set period of time under exam conditions, whereas EVERY student who goes on to work in the service industry (in which industry I am including lawyers) will have to meet with and explain things to clients. If you cannot do that well, you will struggle make a living. My final explanation, deployed to those who want to hear just a little bit more of the theory behind the ICCC, is that it is a mock interview competition, with nuances. It is not just about obtaining all the information that you are supposed to from a recalcitrant or reluctant client actor. Rather, it is about obtaining as much as you can from a client, whilst striking up the beginnings of a professional relationship, all of which necessitates a degree of compassion and empathy, not to mention basic social skills. If those skills can be learned (and a lot of people, including me, make some or all of their living by teaching such skills), another reference point to your own raw experience can be useful. As such, the act of reflection and the art of teamwork are embedded in the marking criteria, with teams being forced to ponder what they should have done differently. There may be other layered explanations as to what the ICCC is, but that will do for now.

Whilst speaking of different explanations for different people, that seems a good opportunity to highlight what I suppose to be the key skill that the contest is trying to impart to its participants. Clients come in with a variety of stories, perspectives, emotions and levels of sophistication. What worked in one interview will not work in another. Different strokes for different folks, and all that. The best teams will be able to control the loquacious type and elicit information from the recluse, whilst knowing when someone wants a quick yes or no to a question or expects erudite elucidation on some seemingly impenetrable situation.

Whilst speaking about all the above, I seem to have lost the thread of what I was actually wanting to say in this blog. Therein lies a lesson for any participants in the ICCC: it is eminently possible to stravaig around various issues or talk far too much about how important confidentiality is, but sometimes you need to focus on the key story. For any competitors, the key story is that which should be elicited from the client in front of them. For me, the key story is what I took from the day, and I really took a lot. By that, I do not simply mean that I have some new scenarios to adapt into my own training materials (although the new scenarios will be handy). Much of what I took is intangible and rather difficult to explain in a blog. Of what I can articulate, I found sharing a “bench” with four different judges over the course of the two days a valuable lesson indeed. The first panel was particularly interesting, where I was both the only man and the only Scot (the panel being completed by ladies from Australia and Northern Ireland). My second panel happened to be all Scottish, with a 2:1 male to female ratio, but again I took much from that panel and the comparison between the two panels was instructive. Something that was even more instructive was the comparison between the teams. Twenty-two different jurisdictions were represented and all were faced with one problem scenario that involved a boisterous pub argument gone bad after spilling out into the streets. Of the teams I judged, those from a “western” tradition were generally quick to ask about CCTV. Others teams did not, perhaps because CCTV is less common in their tradition (for technological or cultural reasons). One team from a non-western tradition surprised me (and the client) by asking whether she had been armed and whether the pub had “guards” (there may have been a slight translation issue here), but any surprise we felt could easily be attributed to our cultural expectations being foisted (unfairly) onto a problem scenario rather than the students misconstruing it. I also learnt a lot from the students, who had a variety of techniques to start and finish the interviews, some more effective than others, and the at times frustrating inability of some teams to get to the nub of the issue within forty minutes, when others would be almost finished their fact-finding within fifteen. The better interviews deployed tag-team techniques and divided labour effortlessly, playing seamless segues to steer the client towards what the interviewers wanted to hear; the best interviews made the client think that she wanted to talk about what the interviewers wanted to hear.

Whilst speaking of the need for seamless segues, I shall deploy one last blunt segue into my last substantive paragraph. Maybe this blog is too clever by half and/or I have insulted the reader by feeling the need to point this out, but apart from the blog’s first paragraph every paragraph has been a rather blatant segue. As noted the best interviews allowed things to develop in an organic yet controlled fashion, with cunning follow-on questions or canny silences steering the course. The participants in those interviews will have every chance to take the skills they have learnt and deployed in practice and for that reason alone I would highly recommend getting involved with the ICCC if you can. You might also get a trip to an international final out of it: if Glasgow is not glamorous enough for you, next year’s final is to be in Puerto Rico. Of course, I would be training the Aberdeen team next year with gusto anyway, but a trip to Puerto Rico might just be an added incentive…

Tips

Finally, here are some points for any students who happen to be reading this blog and are seeking guidance on how to perform well at the ICCC. Three tips follow.

Don’t get bogged down at the start of the interview. Of course, you need to explain some preliminaries, like how important confidentiality is, but when you have a chatty client champing at the bit to get going, you generally want to let the client do that. Preliminaries can often be shifted to closing-formalities without doing great violence to the interview, provided of course you keep track of time.

That segues to my second point. Sure, the client might be champing at the bit to talk, but control the reins. In so doing, you really must keep track of time. If you do not leave adequate time for reflection, you are both missing out 1/11th of the marking criteria and the chance to explain why you did something that might otherwise confound the judges. Granted, this is one part of the competition that might not imitate real-life lawyering: does a sensible lawyer go into a 40 minute meeting without allowing for at least some overrun? Whilst that may be the case, the competition has to have rules, so do all you can to stay well within the parameters thereof.

For my third point (and last segue) I make one final grasp for the reins I mention above. Yes, you want to be in control of the interview, but you also want to be a team. The team I am talking about here is not the interviewing team, as important as that is. Rather, it is the team of you and the client. If you can speak of “we”, of a newfound team of agents and principal, you will be well on the way to establishing that you are committed to your client’s legal and emotional needs and you have the beginning of a professional relationship. That is crucial in the ICCC. It is pretty important in real life too.

Postscript

So who won the 2013 competition? Canada. Well done to them.

Since this blog is very much all about me, I shall return to my egocentricity, I feel slightly vindicated by this result. I judged the Canadian pair in the preliminary rounds and thought they were outstanding. As such I put them as the winner in the relevant preliminary heats. I am reassured that the more experienced judges in the final round agreed that they were worthy winners.

Some final well dones go to all the participants in the 2013 competition, the dedicated team at the Brown-Mosten ICCC, the various national representatives and the University of Glasgow for hosting. It was an honour to be part of it.

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About basedrones

Bachelor of Laws. Scots lawyer working at the University of Aberdeen. English law qualified. Took far too long to write this bio. Blogs on legal issues, with occasional veering into other purportedly intellectual stuff from time to time. Tweets about legal issues, education, law clinics, fitba, music, rogue cell division and not at all about politics at @MalcolmCombe.
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One Response to The International Client Consultation Competition – a judge’s reflections

  1. Pingback: Scottish University Law Clinic Network 2014 | basedrones

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