How to Do a Child Custody and Visitation Client Intake

One question every solo or small firm attorney asks is, “How do I get the phone to ring?” The answer to that is endless: everything from in-person networking, to paid search ads. A better question, which many neglect to ask, is, “What do I do when the phone rings?”

For Family Law attorneys who handle child custody and visitation matters, the latter question is even more vital to consider – how many times have you taken a consult or a call with someone who spends two hours in tears but doesn’t even have bus fare to get home (let alone pay you for your time)? No matter what the source of the lead (referrals, lead-sourcing services, or your own marketing), you have to work the process: screen out unqualified leads, sell them on your expertise and client service, and sign the retainer.

An effective child custody and visitation intake will screen out unqualified clients and increase your chances of signing the ones that you can help.

The Two-Step Consultation Process: Screening is a Must

You don’t have hours to spare on the phone or in person with a tire-kicker. The easiest way to eliminate this issue is to have a two-stage intake process that starts with an administrative assistant screening leads to determine if they are qualified potential clients.

A proper screening should begin with a conflict check and a few questions about the legal matter to determine whether it is an issue your firm actually deals with. For example, you might get calls about child abuse that require the services of a criminal attorney, rather than a Family Law or Domestic Relations lawyer.

From there, the screener should go on to ask a series of preliminary questions to qualify the prospect and to gather information for the attorney’s consultation. A few great questions to ask include:

  • What are the parties’ income and assets (for purposes of child support and your fees)?
  • How did you hear about our firm?
  • How many children? Ages?
  • Were parents ever married?
  • Is there currently a custody order in place?
  • What is the current custodial arrangement?
  • Any special needs to be aware of?
  • Has there ever been domestic violence?
  • Is there currently a case filed?
  • Are you looking to hire an attorney?

That last question is vital – the screener should not be afraid to mention hourly rates and retainer amounts, as it will discourage free advice seekers from pushing forward. Be careful on disqualifying a lead too easily, however – it is very often the case that a potential client can borrow the funds from a relative, use fee-shifting laws to place the burden on their spouse, or allow you to place a lien on property that covers your fees after the case is finished.

Another great tip is to have the screener, if possible in your jurisdiction, check the court’s online filing system for any cases filed in either party’s name. This often results in valuable information for the attorney and surprises for a party that may not have known about a recent filing or even a pending hearing or trial. This may also turn up past attorneys-of-record -- if there are plenty of them listed, that potential client may be a problem client.

One final tip for the screening step: make a checklist and post it near the phone. Not only will this help the screener to not skip steps, and give the screener a place to log the information for the consult, but if your firm has turnover, it’ll shorten your training time.

Step 2: A Phone or In-Person Consultation

The next step in the intake is consultation with an attorney. Opinions vary greatly on whether this should be in-person or a phone call, and there are good arguments on both sides:

  • In-person consults are a two-edged sword. Requiring them weeds out non-serious folks. But it may also turn off some serious potential clients who’d rather vet you before committing to an in-person meeting.
  • An in-person meeting likely increases your chances of retaining, as it’s harder to say no in person. But, if you have free advice seekers, it can waste more time than a call.

A compromise might be to offer a short phone consult of around 20 minutes, then offer a free in-person consult to cases that seem serious after that phone consult. Whatever you do, control the conversation and be sure to keep it brief, as anyone who has ever handled an emotional Family Law client will tell you – they’ll go on and on if you let them. Consider setting a fixed time limit for the consultations and using the line, “I have an appointment scheduled after yours,” to keep them on task.

Many attorneys question the utility of free consultations and phone consultations. Again, opinions vary, but offering at least a brief free phone consultation is a great way to demonstrate authority and knowledge to impress a potential client who likely has a few dozen options that are only one call away, if they, like most people, have a smartphone.

Finally, if like many solos, you cannot afford a receptionist, there are virtual receptionist services available that will answer your calls and can gather enough of the above information for you to do background research before following up yourself. A virtual receptionist is probably preferable to answering the phone yourself and getting stuck on a two-hour free consultation with an unqualified caller.

Notes on Timing: Mere Minutes Can Cost You

How soon should you (or your receptionist-screener) respond to a new lead? Try five minutes or less. A study published in the Harvard Business Review way back in 2011 found that businesses had a ten times higher rate of successful contact if they responded to a web-based form inquiry within five minutes, rather than ten. Other notable findings, distilled into a handy infographic by InsideSales.com, include:

  • Most phone representatives would reach out once or twice, then give up on a lead. The optimal number appears to be six attempts, which resulted in a 90% contact rate.
  • Wednesday and Thursday were the best days to qualify leads and initiate the sales process. For attorneys, scheduling that follow-up consult on one of these days may increase your chances of retention.
  • Time of day matters too: before and after the typical work day (7:30 to 8:30 a.m. and 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. were the best times to make contact with a lead.

Consider also how consumers have changed since that study was published – smartphones have proliferated, making access to a list of other attorneys as simple as saying, “Hey Siri.” Respond accordingly and respond quickly.

Following Up: Email Early and Often

Immediately after a consultation – online or offline – your firm should send a thank you email with contact information and a link to your website and other resources that might help seal the deal. (A review site filled with five-star reviews, perhaps?)

This can also be an effective strategy for email leads that come in during off hours – an immediate automated response offering a free consultation during business hours will be more effective than calling someone twelve hours after their desperate midnight email. Software helps a lot with these automated emails – ask your web developer to set up the off-hours auto-responder, for example.

Finally, there are a number of software solutions that will initiate a drip email campaign – a few messages sent automatically at a set interval (every few days, for example). These can be helpful for keeping yourself in-sight, in-mind if a client is researching and deciding between multiple attorneys or simply isn’t yet ready to proceed – every family law attorney will encounter the post-consultation reconciliation that, months or years later, turns into raging divorce litigation.

Getting the phone to ring is hard – harder, even, than following the above steps to convert that lead to a real client. If you are looking for other sources of clients with real potential, FindLaw now offers Lead Flow, a family law lead generation service. Lead Flow allows you to focus on working the leads and clients, rather than gathering them.