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REDUCING MALPRACTICE SUITS

How and why you need to carefully screen cold calls from potential new clients

What’s your firm’s process for dealing with a potential new client? What happens when someone sends the firm an email asking for a quote for a real estate transaction or when a frantic caller leaves a long, detailed voice mail message about why she wasn’t to blame for the fatal car crash being covered on the morning news? Who takes the call? How are calls prioritized? And is the caller charged for your time?

Ideally, you have a policy and procedure for handling “cold calls,” as well as a new client screening form. But if you don’t and if your staff hasn’t received proper training on how to properly extract details from a potential new client you are, at best, missing out on revenue opportunities; at worst, you’re leaving your firm vulnerable to a potential conflict of interest or malpractice problem.

Why you need a system

“A significant number of legal malpractice lawsuits can be avoided if the attorney takes a very careful look at the potential client in the beginning stages of the relationship,” says Willis S. Baughman, former Vice President and Director of Loss Prevention of Lawyers’ Mutual Insurance Co. of California, in his article Selective Representation: Malpractice Prevention Through Client Screening.”

While large law firms may have sophisticated systems of vetting potential new clients that include detailed conflict of interest searches and approval committees, “case acceptance criteria or guidelines … are an essential management tool for the practice of law, particularly in the small firm,” says the Tennessee Bar Association.

Nader Anise, Esq., a legal marketing strategist and president of Nader Anise Lawyer Marketing in Boca Raton, Florida, agrees. “Cold calling certainly provides an opportunity to generate revenue. The thing is that few law firms have real systems in place to properly handle it.” “By ‘systems,’ I mean an actual uniform method of handling such calls that increases the possibility of gaining a new client, limiting conflicts and furthering the firm’s objectives. But the process should start even before any phone call is ever received. ”

What to consider

The first step, according to Anise, is to identify your position as a law firm. What type of law firm do you want to be? Are you a low cost, affordable, Wal-Mart of law firms or a mid-priced Macy’s type of firm? Do you want to attract only clients with deep pockets or are you a law firm mill? “These and other questions must be asked prior to instituting any type of process, because the answers have a big impact on how you handle the call,” says Anise, “including whether you give a price over the phone or not, charge for the consultation and how heavily you screen over the phone.”

It’s important to designate the task of handling cold calls and emails to a specific person in the firm and provide that person with proper training. Ideally, this person:

  • has good listening skills,
  • knows how to drill down to the root of a problem,
  • knows what NOT to ask,
  • understands the types of files your firm handles,
  • has the authority to turn down cases, and
  • has the time to handle the calls.

You also want someone who understands the importance of a first impression, because while you may not be able to handle this case, something else may come up for the person that is in your area of expertise. And if their request for help was dealt with promptly and professionally, they are more likely to consider calling you again.

The cold call screening form

Once you have established the types of cases you’ll handle, and identified and trained the person who will handle the cold calls, your next step is to create a customized screening form which will help ensure that key information is collected from a potential new client. Be sure your form includes obtaining the following:

Information about the subject matter:

  • A brief description of case
    • Does it really require a lawyer? (If not, inform caller and log call.)
    • Is the area of expertise within the scope of work conducted by the firm? (If so, continue collecting information.)
    • Is it outside the scope of work conducted by the firm? (If so, stop collecting information, and refer caller to two or three other lawyers. Log call.)
  • Deadlines and limitation dates. Are they reasonable and achievable?
  • How strong is the case? Does it have legal merits?

Information about the client:

  • How did they hear about you?
  • Name and contact information
  • Expectations. What does the caller want to see happen? And by when?
  • Rationale. What is the caller’s motive? Is it to recoup damages or is it a personal vendetta?
  • Was prior legal advice obtained?
    • If yes, from whom
    • Why was the legal relationship terminated
    • Are any outstanding legal fees owed to another attorney
  • What is the relative urgency?
  • What is the client’s ability to pay fees
  • Reaction to hourly rate and retainer information. (If caller is unhappy or has unreasonable expectations regarding fees, refer caller to Lawyer Referral Service.)

Next Steps:

  • If the matter is worth considering, forward form to attorney or practice group chairs for evaluation.
  • If not taking the case, mail certified letter to caller to ensure there is no miscommunication or risk of liability.

Final thoughts

When putting together your “cold call” procedures, include a system for logging cold calls and noting how they were handled. You might also consider adding a message to your voice mail system requesting that potential new clients not include too many details in their message until they have been accepted as a client. This will help reduce the possibility of a conflict of interest, and it may help remind callers that an unsolicited phone call to a law firm is not equivalent to retaining the firm.

Of course, you don’t want to take every case that walks in the door. And some may find that only one out of a hundred of these cold calls is worthwhile. But you never know: that one call might be the mother lode. Be sure your firm is ready for the call.


Related reading:

Model Tool: New client intake form


Why you should consider automating your client screening process


How are your billing and collecting processes?


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