As a solo or small law firm practitioner, the client intake process can be a very crucial part of establishing the right attorney-client relationship at the outset. Usually, the intake process will represent the first working relationship you have with your new client. Therefore, it is important that you make a very good first impression. A good first impression could mean the difference between a satisfied client and a soon-to-be disgruntled client. Creating a good first impression applies both to the style and the substance of the client intake process.
A good base for creating a successful first impression with your client intake process is by pre-screening the process. It is hard to make a good impression if you are unaware of your client's expectation. So, to better assess and manage your client's expectation before and during the intake process, make it a habit of pre-screening all your clients' intake appointments before the actual intake process itself.
The pre-screening process can be accomplished in various ways. The easiest and obvious way of doing this is to ask basic questions about the client and the client's legal matter when the client reaches out to you or your office to schedule an intake appointment. Questions regarding whether the client has ever worked with an attorney, and the nature of the matter the client is seeking help with, can better help you prepare for the intake process. Pre-screening also allows you to determine whether the client's matter is the type you are interested in or capable of handling. If after pre-screening you determine that the client, for whatever reason, is not a good fit, you can refer the client to other attorneys, saving you and the client time, while preserving any potential future references from the client.
Support Staff's Role
Your support staff is critical in making a good impression. The extent to which you establish a good first impression will depend in large part on your staff's professionalism and interaction with the client. Anecdotal evidence suggests that for most people, visiting a lawyer's office is a daunting task and one they would rather avoid. Your staff should be aware of this fact.
From a law management perspective, your practice should also have a clear and written intake protocol. Initially, the protocol will properly be developed from a common sense perspective, but be sure to update the protocol periodically, including any feedback or suggestions you may receive from clients and your staff. Also, make sure that your staff is familiar with, understands, and follows your intake protocol.
A good intake protocol will include and address both administrative and practice management concerns. Some of the steps to incorporate in your protocol may include, for instance, a general explanation of your firm's business philosophy to manage and address the client's expectations, your billing processes, a general explanation of the attorney-client relationship, and an explanation of the various forms the client will have to complete during the intake process. Your intake protocol should also allow for client questions and should be flexible enough to be tailored to the client's level of sophistication and needs. To ensure uniform application of your intake protocol, a periodic staff refresher on the intake process is highly advised.
Identifying just how much information to request on a client intake form can be a tricky proposition. On one hand, your client intake form should require as much information as necessary to adequately allow you to represent the client. On the other hand, your intake form should not overwhelm the client, recalling that most clients find a visit to the lawyer's office uncomfortable. Conveniently, most commercial office management programs come with intake templates and modules that you can adopt for your practice. This, of course, does not prevent you from devising your own customized intake forms.
If you choose the customized route, there are few rules to keep in mind. Your intake forms should require a mix of personal and matter-specific information. It is also usually a good idea to develop specifically customized client intake forms to reflect the type of client and the nature of the matter you will be handling. For instance, your client intake form for a business or corporate client should differ from an intake form for a personal client, since the two clients are different types of entities. Likewise, a bankruptcy matter may require information not necessary to a tort matter.
Generally, however, your intake forms should require personal information such as the client's full name, social security number, residential and employment addresses, and driver's license number. If the matter involves more that one client, it is a good practice to have each client complete an intake form. Your intake form should also include requests for specific information regarding the matter the client needs help with. For instance, if a client's matter is a civil case, your intake form should request information about the adverse party, as well as a brief recitation of the facts relating to the matter and when the matter occurred.
Engagement and Fee Agreements
The intake protocol should also allocate time to discuss your engagement and fee arrangements with the client. Without delving too much into the various fee structures available, the intake process is a good time to explain you fees and charge amounts, how they are billed or assessed, and how frequently the client should expect an invoice. In addition to explaining your practice's general billing policies, care must be taken to explaining any caveats. It usually also helps to walk through your engagement and fee agreements with the client, makings sure that the client clearly understands the provisions of each agreement. Also make sure that the client receives a copy of these agreements and any other relevant information.
Because the client intake process represents the first real chance to make an good impression on your soon-to-be client, it is important to set in place a client intake procedure that is complete and consistent.