Last week in a fit of desperation, I asked a client facing a domestic violence related charge how he met his ex-girlfriend, the complainant. The man, who had tried to fire me on the last court date, softened his expression. He shook his head and launched into an intimate, if at times off-color, tale of love at first sight. Our conversation sparked ideas for trial strategy, and also re-built trust between us. Personal details served a professional purpose.

I fancy myself a client-centered attorney. In initial interviews, I ask about my clients’ families, health, housing and immigration issues. Recently, though, I realized that I can be more effective if I further expand the scope of my inquiries. After learning that a client from the former Soviet Union trained in a circus academy before he came to the US, I’ve started to ask my clients who are recent immigrants about their occupations in their home countries. Suddenly the newspaper deliveryman across from me, who speaks uncomfortably in broken English, sits up taller in his chair as he explains his university training in locomotive engineering.  

We don’t have time, unfortunately, to probe the depths of each client’s life experience. Asking our clients the kinds of questions we ask of people we’re getting to know socially, can help build trust in an attorney-client relationship, and provide insights on how to humanize our clients to juries.

I learned the effectiveness of presenting the broader life experiences of a witness when a prosecutor used this technique against me at trial. I had just declared in the opening of my DWI case, “There will be no testimony from anyone trained in medicine that my client was intoxicated– you will just hear the testimony of two NYPD cops.” At the beginning of his direct exam of the arresting officer, the prosecutor asked the officer how he was employed before he worked for the NYPD. The answer? He was a paramedic for 5 years.