Law firms are busy places, and sometimes the smaller operations are even more chaotic than their large firm counterparts. It’s important to keep that behind the scenes, though. Your clients should see only a well-oiled machine — beginning the moment they first make contact with the firm.
Often, the first interactions will involve your support staff. Theirs are the first faces a client sees when she walks through the door, the first greetings on the phone, and they are sometimes involved in pre-screening, too. So, it’s crucial that each of your support team members understands the message you want to send to the public and conveys it when dealing with clients, whether in person, on the phone or by email.
Client Intake Calls: Getting It Right
Our firm represents clients in personal injury matters. Many prospective clients find us online and make initial contact through our online contact form, but we also have clients who reach out by phone or email. I’ve written before about general law firm phone etiquette. However, when it comes to intake calls specifically, here are a couple of things to impress on anyone who answers the phones at your office:
- Be sensitive to the caller and their reason for contacting you. Remember, the day someone needs to retain legal counsel is probably not that person’s best day. In my practice, the person could be calling because he’s just been in a car accident, is having medical complications, or has lost a loved one. I remind staff that although they deal with injured clients every day, to the person on the phone this is a huge life event.
- Manage expectations. The staff who are on the front lines of taking phone calls or answering email inquiries need to have a realistic view of the time frame in which you will respond to the client. A prospective client who is told that he will get a return call by the end of the week will often wait for the call during that time frame. If a prospective client is told he’ll get a call back by the close of business and the call doesn’t come, he will have moved on to another firm by the end of the week.
Who Does Intake Screening in Your Practice?
If you’re a solo practitioner with one secretary or receptionist, it’s probably you. But if you are in a group with a few lawyers, paralegals and support staff, the pre-screen task could go to someone else. If you have a trusted paralegal or support team member who can do a telephone pre-screen, especially when the contact comes from email or an online form, it can save you a lot of time.
You will want to determine a strict intake protocol. Prepare a list of your standard intake questions and coach the person chosen on to how to ask them.
Note: The benefit to doing this by phone is that when the client arrives for the first in-person meeting, he can meet directly with the lawyer who will be taking the case. For you, the benefit is that you will have already been briefed as to what the case and client are about before you participate in that first meeting.
Using a Virtual Receptionist for Client Intake Calls
More law firms are embracing the virtual receptionist concept for day-to-day calls and inbound prospective client calls. While these services can definitely be cost-effective, you need to be sure it will be able to deliver the customer service experience that you would want a client to get from a receptionist in your office.
There are lots of variations in how to employ a virtual receptionist service, including what level of live or automated phone answering you wish to use. It could involve an automated menu-based system that transfers calls based on the caller’s input prompts, but there can also be live operators to interact with callers (like an answering service). ConsumerAffairs has a good breakdown of features to consider for virtual receptionist services.
Lawyer-Client Communications: Setting Expectations
As we talk about “pre-screening” and “intake,” what does that mean, exactly? While each firm and lawyer might handle the client onboarding process differently, certain components of the process should be consistent. The two main aspects of client intake involve the client’s communication with you (the nature of their case, what their desired outcome is) and your communication with the client.
What do you need to communicate to the client during those initial interactions?
- Your firm’s general business and legal philosophy
- How, when and how much the client will be billed, including a clear explanation of your fee structure
- Expectations for the attorney-client relationship
- An ongoing communications structure
It is especially important to set expectations for ongoing communication. If you generally communicate by email versus by telephone, the client should know that. If the client is averse to email (especially if he is elderly or disabled), explain what your usual time frame is for returning calls. It’s always better to prepare a client up-front for what to expect because he will be frustrated if calls and emails are not being returned when he thinks they should be.
Also, let prospective clients know when they will be dealing with you directly and when a paralegal, associate or support team member will be handling certain aspects of the case.
The key to client intake is having a streamlined process that allows you to efficiently screen to make sure that the cases are within your area of practice, and that there is potential for a good working relationship between you and the client. Whether you win or lose the case, the ongoing objective is to manage your client’s expectations and nurture the attorney-client relationship.
When clients understand up-front what is expected of them and what they can expect from you, you can move forward effectively.