An efficient client intake process can save lawyers time and trouble down the road. It can enhance client service and even improve the bottom line by helping you screen out matters that aren’t a good fit.
We asked law practice management and technology pros for their best advice on improving client intake — from client services and workflow tips to tech tools for being more efficient and effective. Here’s advice from Heidi Alexander, Sheila Blackford, Jim Calloway, Andrea Cannavina, Jared Correia and Natalie Kelly.
Jim Calloway: Focus on Client Satisfaction
My best tips for improbing the client intake process are not about technology, but about using intake and onboarding to improve ultimate client satisfaction.
One truism in life is that people, and therefore clients, are generally pleased when their expectations are met and frustrated when things do not go according to their expectations. So when a new client retains the firm, the lawyer should take immediate efforts to make sure their expectations are reasonable and in line with the firm’s procedures. This includes a realistic expectation of how long the legal process may take, particularly in litigation. A client with completely unreasonable expectations will likely be a problem client. Address these sooner rather than later.
Providing an estimated timeline is not something lawyers have typically done, but it is very client-friendly practice. Also, doing this helps your staff appreciate why internal deadlines are as important as external ones. Clients should understand how communication between lawyer and client will work during the process, hopefully including the use of a client portal. Since lawyers failing to promptly respond to client communications is a common complaint, you should articulate the firm’s goal in responding to emails or phone calls (e.g., 24 hours, end of next business day).
Discuss with your clients why it is important that they protect attorney-client confidentiality from their end and why some methods of communication are not secure in today’s environment.
You should also appreciate that many of the events that bring one to a lawyer’s office are unpleasant and create stress. Receiver stress is a barrier to communication. So, it’s always a good idea to have some handouts to give the client at the end of the initial conference, or perhaps to deliver these electronically if this is not a face-to-face engagement.
Accomplishing great client satisfaction means that you can expect referrals from this client and a return for other legal services.
Jim Calloway (@JimCalloway) is Director of the Management Assistance Program for the Oklahoma Bar Association and author of several ABA books. He blogs at Jim Calloway’s Law Practice Tips and co-produces the podcast The Digital Edge: Lawyers and Technology.
Sheila Blackford: Git ‘er Done
Client intake is one of the things that lawyers admit, with chagrin, that they skip when busy or don’t do a thorough job of. A lot like flossing one’s teeth, skimping on regularity and thoroughness with intake can lead to serious — and avoidable — problems down the road.
The goal of client intake is to be efficient and effective in capturing the basic details early on. How early? Before you commence working on a matter.
Done well, client intake provides you with complete contact information so that you don’t lose the ability to contact clients. That may seem obvious to you, but all too often there are scant details to be found in client files in an emergency, such as when they need to be contacted in the event of the lawyer’s untimely impairment or death.
Not to be overlooked, the intake form will also give you adequate information with which to do a proper conflict of interest search. Cases in the court record attest to the seriousness of an existing impermissible conflict of interest. Just ask the offending lawyer made to disgorge his legal fees.
And we’re while talking ethics, the elephant in the room is your potential lack of competence to provide the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness, and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation. This includes your competence in the area of technology to carefully evaluate any risks associated with the technology used.
Proper intake can alert you to red flags that may be overlooked in your enthusiasm to sign up a new client matter, especially in times of sluggish revenues. Beware! You may be about to onboard a fraudulent potential client or a serious pain in the neck.
Lawyers reflecting at the conclusion of an arduous and stressful client matter that generated an ethics violation or malpractice claim too often voice that they knew they should have terminated the relationship, or never taken it in the first place. A good client intake process may keep you from going down that unpleasant road.
There are many programs, bots and apps surrounding lead generation and tracking, intake and onboarding. Improvements to client intake have created a more efficient and effective process. Likely you’ve read about some here on Attorney at Work. When it comes to client intake, get ‘er done!
Sheila M. Blackford (@SheilaBlackford) is an attorney and author of the ABA book “Trust Accounting in One Hour For Lawyers,” co-author of “Paperless in One Hour for Lawyers,” and a past Editor-in-Chief of the ABA’s Law Practice magazine.
Natalie Kelly: Leverage Your Practice Management Program
Practice management software programs provide many intake features natively, or you can use their customizable fields and other functionality to upgrade how you onboard new clients. Here are a few quick tips.
- Reduce the number of times your clients have to duplicate information in your intake process. Automate as many required forms as you can to auto-populate common fields of required client information. Don’t you hate having to repeatedly type (or write) your address and telephone numbers and email addresses? Follow the “one and done” rule when designing your intake forms within practice managers — if you don’t use programs specifically designed for intake as an add-on or integration within your program.
- Don’t be afraid of clogging up a practice management system with basic contact information from potential clients. Remember you have a duty to avoid conflicts of interest and that information should be collected and reviewed in your intake process. Most practice management systems have no upper limits on the number of contact records you input — and if they do, you should investigate with them and ask why!
- Create a single, nonbillable matter record called “Potential Clients.” Attach the contact record of every potential client to the “Potential Clients” matter. Record the potential client’s matter details and information in the notes related to that contact record, and when the contact becomes a paying client, you can easily transition them into your client roster and create their individual matter from the notes you’ve recorded.
- Step up your intake process by adding it to a new matter workflow. Include managing the execution of your fee agreement and sending out your “Welcome to Our Firm” letter or packet.
Bonus: Names change, so don’t forget to manage conflicts checking via Social Security numbers or some other unique identifier.
Natalie R. Kelly (@NatalieRKelly) is the Director of Legal Management for the Southern Poverty Law Center and former Director of the Georgia State Bar’s Law Practice Management Program. An adjunct professor at Georgia State University School of Law and a past ABA TECHSHOW chair, Natalie is an attorney and certified consultant for multiple legal software applications with over nearly 20 years of experience working in legal business operations management for firms and organizations of all sizes.
Heidi Alexander: Use the Right Tools to Enhance the Client’s “User Experience”
Effective intake must balance both the client experience and firm efficiency. Start by assessing your potential client. Step into their shoes — what would a simple and convenient intake process look like? Could it be accomplished directly from their mobile phone via a few simple prompts? Or, does your potential client prefer to speak to a live person? Maybe it’s a combination of the two. Your firm’s intake process design and development should center on those answers, focusing on a better “user-experience design,” as discussed by Margaret Hagan in this Typeform blog post.
Typeform is one basic product that can help simplify your intake and enhance your client user experience. It is only one of many available tools. To complete your intake process, you’ll want to be sure that Typeform or whatever intake form the potential client completes is seamlessly input into your case management system. Taking this a step beyond the initial intake, you can weave together intake and engagement by using technology such as Zapier that connects apps and automates workflows.
Here’s an example of a process demonstrated by attorney Erin Gerstenzang last year at ABA TECHSHOW using HelloSign for electronic fee agreement signatures, Typeform for client intake and Square for electronic payment.
Heidi S. Alexander (@heidialexander) is Deputy Director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, where she also leads the Massachusetts Law Office Management Assistance Program (LOMAP). She is the author of “Evernote as a Law Practice Tool” and serves on the ABA TECHSHOW Planning Board and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s Standing Advisory Committee on Professionalism.
Andrea Cannavina: Do It Yourself
Client intake is one of the most important aspects of taking on a case. It is where the expectations you set during the initial consult meet the reality of working with your firm. For this reason, I always recommend that client intake — which is the business of getting the facts known and the pertinent information captured so the case can move forward — be performed either by you, the lawyer, or by a seasoned member of your staff.
Client intake is the time you get to make a client feel comfortable and assure them they have selected the right firm. For that, they need a person who can listen, who can discern the important details and ask the right questions. Simply put, client intake will set the stage for the entire client relationship. Done properly, you will have all the facts you need, and the client will feel as though you are fully invested and, most importantly, as though they have been heard.
Andrea Cannavina (@AndreaCan) helps lawyers, legal administrators and companies that service the legal industry better understand the role of technology and use of the web in the daily practice of law.
Jared Correia: Automating the Client Journey
It’s true: Client intake is the new black. I just wrote about Clio’s acquisition of Lexicata; but that’s really the broadest of broad strokes. Client intake features several shades of operation. And we’re talking about the tip of the iceberg in terms of what law firms can do to improve their client intake. That’s not just a function of law firms historically doing a poor job of onboarding clients (which is true); it’s also a matter of law firms not having meaningful software tools to process leads (also true). I mean, it took until 2018 for a law-focused CRM to get acquired by another company? Let’s hope this is the dawn of the era of intake revision for law firms.
If you’re just getting started with refining your intake, one of the most important things you can do is develop a drip campaign for new leads and clients. This is often called a client journey.
Essentially, you’re automating a follow-up campaign for leads (to increase conversion percentages) or for new clients (to make them feel welcome). The reason you do this tracks back to why lawyers fail at converting leads (they follow-up once, or no times, after initial contact) and onboarding clients (once the fee agreement is signed, clients may not hear from their lawyers for six months — it’s almost standard practice).
Assuming new and exciting intake tools are entering the market — and they are — it will become a matter of fitting the right software to the right law firm use case, the same way it went with cloud-based case management software in the late 2000s.
Modern clients make immediate choices about the law firms they will choose to use or continue to work with. It’s about time law firms started building immediacy into their firm intake systems.
Jared D. Correia (@JaredCorreia) is CEO of Red Cave Law Firm Consulting, which offers business management consulting services for law firms, bar associations and corporations, and COO of Gideon Software, Inc. He is a regular presenter at events and regularly contributes to legal publications, including his Attorney at Work Managing column.
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