The old saying “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” can certainly be applied to your firm’s intake procedures. If you get it right on the front end, you won’t have to withdraw from a case you never should have taken in the first place. It is important that your procedures are written down with specific steps to follow for each and every potential new client or matter.
When a potential new client calls, the firm employee should obtain sufficient detail from the individual to run a conflict check and to provide enough information for the attorneys to decide if it is a case they want to take. At a minimum, the firm employee will want to get the potential client’s name, email, phone number, a statement of the nature of the case, and the names of any involved parties, particularly any adverse parties.
During this initial call, the firm employee should also explain the consultation process, fees for same (if applicable), and the need to complete a conflict check. If the situation warrants, the staff should inform the potential client that no attorney-client relationship will be formed until a conflict check clears AND an attorney has reviewed the relevant information and determined he can offer legal services.
Initially, the names of all parties should be searched through all firm systems (case management, Dropbox, contacts, etc.) to determine if there is any conflict. You should also provide the conflict information, including a brief description of the matter, to all attorneys in the firm to determine if anyone has a conflict. We recommend sending the information via email. Each attorney should respond to the email with either “no conflict” or by indicating that they do have a conflict and what that conflict is. Those emails should be saved to the potential client’s file.
If the conflict check clears, and the lawyer believes the matter is one the firm may be willing to accept, the firm employee should then contact the potential client to set up the consultation. We recommend having an initial attorney-client consultation before offering services, though it is not specifically required by the ethics rules. If, during the consultation or any point thereafter, the client mentions additional parties, the assigned attorney should make certain those names are checked for a conflict as well.
If there is a disqualifying conflict during the initial conflict check, the firm employee should contact the potential client, indicate the firm is unable to assist, and, if possible, provide a referral to another firm or attorney.
Additionally, your intake staff also functions as a gatekeeper. That person is on the front lines and can get a sense of the type of person the potential client is from the initial conversations. This is a little harder to quantify and relies on the firm employee to use their knowledge of the firm coupled with their experience in customer service as well as their instincts to determine whether they believe the potential client is a good fit for the firm. The intake staff may get a sense that the potential client is high maintenance or has unrealistic expectations about the level of service they want from the firm. This kind of insight could be invaluable and may help the firm’s attorneys determine whether the firm would be in a position to assist the client or whether the client’s expectations should be managed in a different way from the outset.
Firm employees should receive training relative to the intake process and the attorney’s obligations under the Rules of Professional Conduct. You should have written guidelines regarding what can and should be said in the initial call, as well as what should not be said. The staff needs to be very careful not to cross into the area of providing legal advice. Many times, potential clients will pepper the intake firm employee with questions and try to push them to answer. The firm employee needs to be on their toes and make sure to indicate, repeatedly if necessary, that they are not an attorney and cannot provide any type of legal advice.
Another pitfall for firm employees is making promises or guarantees about the outcome of the potential matter. It is easy for the employee to want to reassure a potential client, especially when they are upset; however, they need to be thoughtful in their response by only indicating that the attorney should be able to provide them with guidance.
We have found that the best way to make certain the intake procedures are followed each time is to create and use a new client intake form which includes a place for all of the pertinent information and then a checklist section where the firm employee can check off when each stage of the new client intake process is complete.
Training, education, and supervision of your staff are the keys to successful intake. We are happy to assist you with training or putting together your new client intake process and the accompanying documentation. Please reach out to us!