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Best Practices for Effective Law Firm Client Intake

Best Practices for Effective Law Firm Client Intake

Note: This post was penned by Christopher Anderson and originally published in Legal Management Magazine in June 2103.

The number of business leads were increasing every month, yet the number of cases the firm took on were declining says Luke Marchie of a firm with which he’s previously worked.

The problem, according to the marketing director who is currently with Young, Klein & Associates, a firm focusing on criminal defense, was directly tied to the lack of a sound client intake process and untrained staff.

The firm decided to field a dedicated staff – trained and focused — to client intake.  The results were dramatic and took hold in short time: the number of cases the practice took on jump by about 20 percent in just the first month.

Process Improvement; Business Results

Marchie’s testimonial to process reflects observations offered from several other law firms.  For example Craig Streaman says his firm organized its client intake around process and software to drive business improvement for his firm, Consumer Action Law Group, PC.

“Previously, much of this was done on paper with a simple intake sheet,” says Streaman, who like Marchie, is also a law firm marketing director. “As the paper got passed around the office, it would get lost and leads would fall through the cracks.”

His firm has a dedicated team of three that takes calls, conducts initial screenings and sets up meetings with promising clients for the firm’s attorneys.  The thoroughness of the process has eliminated confusion for both the firm and its prospects – and has netted about a 50 percent increase in new client retainers.

Screening Obligations

Client intake is an important process for any business, legal or otherwise. It is often the initial contact with a prospect and the chance to both build rapport and screen a potential client for conflicts.  However, it is the latter that makes client intake even more important to the business of law than to other businesses, according to Jeffrey S. Krause, an attorney and legal technology consultant.

“The primary reason is that [law] firms are responsible for conflict check – most businesses don’t have to do that,” says Krause.  “This is an ethical duty an attorney fulfills.”

Krause is quick to point out that the general public often perceives that lawyers screen prospective customers because “it is good for the lawyer.”  The reality is, according to Krause, that a sound screening is “good for the client.”

Attorneys can manage the delicate balance between screening and building rapport by educating their clients at the outset about how conflict checks protect the clients now and in the future.

“What if your potential client was a witness on a trial you handled a few years ago? It might not be a conflict, but it is really nice to know; check for conflicts against everything you’ve done as a practice.”

Developing Monday-proof Checklist

In a January 2013 survey by LexisNexis of 1,059 attorneys, 63 percent of respondents said they completed their client intake process in a day or less.  Another 31 percent said it could take between three and five days to complete and still another 4 percent reported client intake could last up to two weeks.

The difference in time may well boil down to the exact steps in the client intake process, which can vary widely from firm to firm, depending on the needs and focus of the law practice.

Shane Fischer, an attorney who hung his own shingle, says he sets aside a minimum of two hours to focus on client expectations.  On the other hand, Michael Downey, an attorney with Armstrong Teasdale, LLP advises a multistep process:

  • Initial. An initial conversation that leads to a conflict check, where lawyers should avoid obtaining client confidences.
  • Follow-on. A follow-on conversation to obtain greater detail, but also to begin considering whether the firm wants to take on the case.  Rather than just getting more business, Downey suggests focusing on getting the more of the right business.
  • Shaping. A complete meeting where the representing attorney and client review the matter, management of the matter and expectations.

Regardless of the length of process, Krause, the attorney and legal technology consultant, recommends the data collected be categorized into four key buckets:  contact data, billing data, conflict check and relationship-building data.

1. Contact data.  Certainly home of record and a phone number might seem like basic data, but Krause also suggests email addresses, social media accounts and client communication preferences.  These are important, according to Krause, both to remain competitive and facilitate client relationships.

2. Billing data.  No business, including the practice of law, can be profitable if the customers cannot pay for the services provided. Jon Schildt of Calculated Risk Advisors, an insurance brokerage that provides malpractice insurance, says a credit check is a must.  Krause offers another way to ensure a prospective client’s ability to pay is simply to collect a retainer up front.  “If they cannot pay you now, they probably cannot pay you later,” he says.

3. Conflict check.  Merely checking for litigation in the last five years, or simply checking for conflicts against the opposing attorney isn’t enough according to Krause. He suggests running a contact check against a firm’s entire database, which underscores the importance of electronic records and automation.

“What if your potential client was a witness on a trial you handled a few years ago?” asks Krause. “It might not be a conflict, but it is really nice to know; check for conflicts against everything you’ve done as a practice.”

4. Relationship-building data. Putting a little human touch on the process can go a long way towards relationship-building. Aside from being human, this is simply good customer service: good customer service is good marketing and good marketing leads to good business.  

Is Technology Necessary for Client Intake?

“Malpractice claims come in because a law firm’s client was wronged or feels
they were wronged,” says Schildt of Calculated Risk Advisors. “Therefore, the first line of defense in avoiding [malpractice] lawsuits is to perform adequate due diligence during the client in-take process.”

This is where technology – software and databases – can become incredibly useful says Krause.  In the above mentioned survey, 62 percent of respondents also said they used a manual process for client intake, while just 23 percent reported using automation or software to facilitate the process.  In addition, three-quarters, or 76 percent of respondents said two to three different people are entering data during the client intake process.

These are considerations where Krause says automation is inherently valuable for several reasons:

  • Ensures data integrity and standards.  Software that comes with predetermined fields ensures client intake data is entered according to the same standard. With multiple people entering data over periods of time that can stretch from days to weeks – a standard view, or common picture of information that software can provide, avoids the risks of erroneous or mistaken information.  Simply said, automation enables process and ensures data integrity.
  • Eliminates manual errors. Checking for conflicts is an order of magnitude easier if client intake data is stored in a database as opposed paper and file systems.  Imagine facing a storage room of filing cabinets and tasked with checking for client conflicts against the entire practice.  “If you have to go through paper files, not only does that take forever, but it’s prone to errors,” Krause says.
  • Going paperless. Firms want to produce less paper – electronic records are easier to manage, file and organize.  Electronic records take up less space and are environmentally friendly. Further, going paperless ought to start at the client intake process.  “If you ask clients for papers, and make copies of those papers, and then stuff them into a file, you’re never going to get there,” advises Krause. “Turn them into an electronic format; you can’t start a paperless process if you’re gobbling up paper form a client.”

    Having your client do some of the work in client intake can be possible through portals, or other electronic, customer-facing questionnaires. These can be used to kick-start the process started.  Additionally, such self-entry into portals cans streamline the process by transfering key information directly from client and using it to populate some of the information you want to capture in your database.

  • Analysis and reporting.  A client intake databases provides the ability to analyze and report on the fundamental business health of the practice.For example, database analysis can answer strategic business questions such as the source(s) of the firm’s leads, how the firm is performing in converting leads to clients, or how the cases stack up across the different focus areas.

    Technologically savvy firms can take automation up another level by integrating their client intake databases to billing systems.  The resulting information can be used to analyze the firm’s efficiency, and in some cases determine for example, that the attorney with the most billable hours isn’t always the most profitable.

Process and Profitability

There’s an old adage in business management: “That which cannot be measured, cannot be managed.” Developing sound and repeatable processes to the routine aspects of a law practice is the first step to gaining a better understanding of the business.  This enables law firm leadership to manage the firm’s activities to improve profitability.

More importantly, this is how law firms grow the number of cases they take on each month, as Marchie and Streaman noted previously, and how firms can get not just more business, as Michale Downey suggested, but more of the right business.

“Firms desire to grow,” says Schidt. “But these practices help them do it successfully.”

Photo credit:  Flickr via Creative CommonsCC BY-ND 2.0

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About Frank Strong

Frank Strong
Frank Strong is the communications director with Business of Law Software Solutions (BLSS) a division of LexisNexis. In this capacity he directs communications strategy and execution in support of BLSS products including those for large law, small law and corporate counsel. With 15 years in experience in the marketing communications for the high-tech sector, Strong previously served as director of PR for Vocus, which develops marketing, PR and media monitoring software. He’s held multiple roles in PR both in-house with corporations, and has also endured the rigors of billable hours, having completed gigs at PR firms both large and small. A veteran with two deployments, Strong has concurrently served in uniform in reserve components of the military for 20 years, initially as an enlisted Marine and later as an Army officer. Strong holds a BA in Film and TV production from Worcester State University, an M.A. in Public Communication from American University, and an M.B.A. from Marymount University.
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