From vetting witnesses to revealing fraud, interviewing is a critical skill for most attorneys. But if you're trying to uncover hidden information or crack a tight-lipped source, you can't treat it as a cross-examination. Staci Dresher '03 regularly does tough interviews for legal clients as partner and associate general counsel in the San Francisco office of the Mintz Group, a private investigative firm. Here are her top five tips for lawyers doing investigative interviews.
Find out as much as you can about the interviewee before the interview. Where has he lived for the past 15 years? Does he have criminal records or civil judgments in those jurisdictions? What are his corporate alter-egos? Does he own his home or have a history of bankruptcies? Databases that lawyers use, such as LexisNexis and Westlaw, have modules that can help you find a wealth of public records. Social media profiles are also good sources of information.
Practice introducing yourself in a way that doesn't sound intimidating. Plan how many times to call before leaving a voicemail and what you'll say in the message. You want to pique someone's interest without telling them too much. If you think, “This person is not going to talk to me,” they won't. Get in the right mindset: “This person has information that they want to tell me.”
If you say, “Tell me about yourself and how you were involved,” people will freak out. Instead, express that you're on a fact-finding mission and are asking for help. Take the person out of it, and start with technical facts or chronology. For example, “Can you walk me through how the department was organized?” or “Let's just go through the chronology of what happened – I don't need to how you were involved.” Eventually, you'll get to the facts you need.
Have a document, such as a memo or email, handy when you approach someone. Ideally, it shows their connection to the matter at hand but isn't necessarily incriminating. This gives you a tangible way to show you've done your homework and that the person is already somehow involved.
People have many ways to say no. Plan for how to tackle each of them. Use the information you've gathered, and be open and honest. For example, you often hear, “I don't have time right now.” You can say, “Right, I know you work in San Francisco and probably commute home. What's a good time to talk?” Or if the response is, “I want to talk to my lawyer,” say, “I'm happy to talk to your lawyer. Let's call him together.”