A Client-Focused Practice: Developing and Testing Emotional Competency in Clinical Legal Interviews


  • Felicity Wardhaugh University of Newcastle
  • Colin James University of Newcastle




Law students learn interviewing skills as part of their clinical legal education. Teaching this skill to students involves helping students relate to clients. Recent suggestions for teaching students have included adopting a client centred approach to legal interviewing. Similarly, in the face of growing concerns about the adversarial culture of lawyers there have been calls for lawyers to develop relationship-centred competencies.Typically, law students attending law schools are in their early twenties and, in terms of experience and developmental capacities, many may not be at a stage where thinking about the client comes naturally. Students interviewing clients tend to ignore visual or spoken clues from the client. A law student, observed by one of the authors, recently demonstrated this tendency whilst interviewing a client at the University of Newcastle Legal Centre (UNLC). The client’s gaunt physical appearance made it clear that the client was unwell. The student took instructions for a Will without asking any questions about the client’s motivation for seeking legal help. It later transpired that the client needed advice about a terminal illness claim.If law students can learn how to improve their emotional competency whilst interviewing a client, they may relate better to clients in a clinical legal setting and be able to obtain more relevant information. We have found no recent research in the discourse on clinical legal education as to whether training in emotional intelligence can improve law students’ performance in a client interview. At the University of Newcastle we have designed a research project to test whether training students in emotional competence (applied Emotional Intelligence) can produce a measurable change in the client’s experience of a legal interview.One of the major challenges in researching this question is the lack of guidance in the literature as to how best to train law students for emotional competence. Many publications have focused on the validity or measurement of emotional intelligence and less on the functional aspect of how to increase emotional competencies. Part of the research project therefore involves designing a training program to assist clinical law students to develop emotional competencies.This paper is in two parts. The first part discusses the background to the research and some preliminary findings from stage one of the research. The second part discusses a proposed outline for the training program.