One of your main objectives during the in-depth interview is to motivate your client to participate in all aspects of the case. Please refer to the Initial Telephone Call and In-Depth Interview To-Do List for particular matters you should address. Following is a more thorough discussion of those issues and the manner in which you should conduct the in-depth interview.
For Spanish Only clients, confirm the availability of the Administrative Coordinator and include her in the scheduling of the meeting. The Administrative Coordinator will attend the meetings with the student attorney and Spanish only clients, providing verbatim translation services. The student attorney is wholly responsible for conducting and leading the interview of Spanish only clients, pausing to allow the Administrative Coordinator to translate.
Be on Time for the Interview and Dress Appropriately
Arrive for the interview at least 15 minutes prior to its start time to ensure you are not late. Wear business casual attire. (This is also required whenever meeting with a client.) If the Taxpayer is late for the appointment, it is the policy of the Clinic for you to wait for thirty minutes before giving up on his appearance. (You should have attempted to contact the client during the day before the interview to confirm the client’s attendace.)
If the Taxpayer does not appear for the interview, then you should try to contact him or her immediately by phone, or by mail if he cannot be reached by phone. If the Taxpayer does not respond within ten days after mailing a letter, the student may assume that the Taxpayer does not wish to engage the services of the Clinic. After consulting one of the Clinic Directors, a closing memo should be drafted and a Case Closing Letter sent to the Taxpayer.
Develop Rapport and Allay Fears
Do not begin an interview with questions. Effective client interviewing is one of the important skills that any attorney must develop. A good rapport with the client must exist if the attorney expects to acquire all the information needed to adequately represent the client and to have the client’s trust. A client who is afraid, intimidated or distrustful could impede representation. It is the student attorney’s responsibility to ensure that the client feels as comfortable as possible during the interview. The student attorney must assuage concerns and dispel any distrust the client may have.
You should begin the interview by describing what the Clinic is and what your role is. Most people are uncomfortable revealing private matters to someone they do not know. This may be especially true for clients who are eligible for this program. They may be embarrassed by their financial circumstances and by the problems they are having with the IRS. Individuals with such limited resources frequently feel powerless to defend themselves against so formidable an adversary as the IRS.
It is very important that you are sensitive to fears and anxieties of our clients. You must make it clear that the Clinic is not part of the IRS. You also must not only be concerned for your client, but must make every effort to show your concern.
You must gain the client’s confidence in the Clinic’s ability to provide assistance, however you must always remember that even if you do not know at first how to handle a situation, the Clinic has resources available to you. Tax advice should not be given at the initial interview. You should never be embarrassed about lack of knowledge related to a particular issue. Even tax experts do not apologize for saying: “I will research it for you.” Most people are aware that the tax law is complex and in a constant state of flux and are understanding of the need to research a particular issue.
No Leading Questions
You are to conduct the interview in a question and answer style that requires a narrative response. Ask open-ended questions. Do not ask leading questions that first inform taxpayers what the law is and then ask them whether they comply with the law. Taxpayers should not be tempted to construct their response to fit the applicable law.
Obtain All Needed Documents
Taxpayers may fail to bring all the requested information, and it is not uncommon for the interview to reveal additional needed documents. If either of these situations occurs, you should conduct as much of the interview as possible without the information. You should also give the Taxpayer one of the Student Attorney Clinic business cards and a self-addressed envelope for the Taxpayer to mail copies of the needed documents to the Clinic. You should review all of the documents that the Taxpayer has brought or mailed in and make copies of them before returning them to the Taxpayer. Remember to copy both sides of the documents.
Obtain Accurate Client Information
To avoid mistakes in recording important client information such as name, address, telephone number and social security number, students should verify the information in the Initial Contact Questionnaire with the Taxpayer. If the information was recorded in an initial contact by telephone, ensure that you have the client review any previously recorded information in the initial interview and have the client verify the information by initialing the correct entries, or by correcting any inaccuracies and initialing the corrections. Be sensitive to the possibility that the Taxpayer may be illiterate.
You must also ascertain during the interview whether the Taxpayer was legally married at the end of the tax year in question. The Taxpayer’s marital status has a bearing on filing status, personal exemptions and earned income credit. You also must ascertain whether the Taxpayer was estranged or legally separated or divorced from his spouse. Consult Code § 7703 for the meaning of “marital status” for federal income tax purposes.
Taxpayer’s Tax History
After the Taxpayer has explained the current tax controversy, you must thoroughly review the Tax History section of the Initial Contact Questionnaire completed by the Taxpayer. This form is to be retained in the Taxpayer’s file and it is an important source of information on which you future actions will rely. You need to be aware of the Taxpayer’s previous tax disputes or of his failure to file tax returns. You do not want to hear about a year in controversy for the first time from an IRS representative. You need to have the total tax picture of a client before you begin negotiating on behalf of the client. An IRS representative may raise an issue or a matter relating to a different tax year during a conference, and you will want to be as knowledgeable as possible. If the submission of an Offer in Compromise is a possibility, you must always submit an offer that encompasses all of the client’s tax deficiencies.
Before reviewing and asking questions concerning the Taxpayer’s Tax History, remind him that the Clinic is independent of the IRS and that the information he or she gives will be used to advance his or her case or otherwise to remain confidential. Explain, however, that you can be effective as his tax representative only if you know what the taxpayer has previously done or failed to do as it pertains to federal income taxes. You need to impress upon the Taxpayer that, as his representative, you can help resolve the tax dispute only if you are thoroughly informed. Include the Taxpayer’s explanations next to the answers on the Tax History section of the Initial Contact Questionnaire. What the Taxpayer tells you should be compared with the information you obtain from the IRS e-Service system.
Ensure that information concerning whether the client has filed a bankruptcy petition within the last five years appears in the correct space in the Tax History.