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MANAGING THE OFFICE

How to make sure your intake consultation covers all the services your firm provides

In a law firm, service counts. In fact, it’s often the service more than the legal abilities that brings in repeat business, says practice management and marketing consultant Allison C. Shields of Legal Ease Consulting in New York City.

For that reason, the service needs to be covered in the initial consultation so the client knows what to expect and the attorney knows what that client is expecting.

Intake sets the foundation of the relationship – good or bad. And if the service is well covered, the attorneys “can set themselves up to be the heroes throughout the engagement.”

It also ensures that no client leaves expecting something that isn’t going to be provided.

Here’s what you’re looking at

Start the intake conversation by explaining the legal process the prospect can expect.

“When clients come to see lawyers, they are in a state of anxiety,” Shields says. They are worried about how the matter will turn out. But they also have “process anxiety,” or concern about what’s going to happen day to day.

The firm obviously can’t make a prognosis on the outcome, but it can explain how the case will proceed.

Start with the basics. In a real estate sale, for example, explain that “Attorney A prepares the contract and sends it to Attorney B. Then there’s a negotiation. And this is what happens when the contract is signed. And here is a list of the documents we need.”

To help the client understand and remember it all, draw up a written outline or flowchart and follow that during the discussion.

Also give an estimated timeline for moving from step to step plus an estimate of how long the entire matter will take.

Be very generous with the time, she says. If the worst-case scenario is three months, say three months. Then if it gets done in one month, the client will be happy. “It’s always better to under promise and over deliver.”

Here’s what can go wrong

Now tell what roadblocks might appear during the matter that could negatively impact the outcome. “Describe where the case can get stuck and where delays might happen.”

With a real estate closing, for example, the inspection might reveal something that needs to be negotiated. Or there could be a delay in getting the mortgage. Or the buyer may not be able to get the mortgage.

Don’t scare the client off “with a whole litany of bad things,” Shields says. But do cover all the possible obstacles. Then when an obstacle does appear, the attorney can say “we knew this might happen” as opposed to the client’s saying “you never told me that.”

Pointing out the roadblocks ensures there are no surprises. It also shows the attorney’s expertise and experience in handling the matter.

Here’s how we’ll communicate

Another element to cover during intake is the frequency and type of communication the client can expect.

Be especially clear here, she says, because one of the most frequent complaints clients cite is that their attorneys didn’t communication well with them.

Go over the basics: At what points should the client expect to hear from the attorney? Will the attorney communicate primarily by phone? text? e-mail? When is the best time for the client to call the attorney? Will calls be returned within the hour? three hours? 24 hours? If the attorney isn’t able to return the call, who will? Will documents be sent and received via e-mail or regular mail?

Introduce the staff and other attorneys who will be communicating with the client during the matter.

Also draw up a contact list of other people the client may talk with at some point such as the billing manager.

Make it comfortable to contact anybody in the firm, she says. “That makes a client feel well taken care of.”

Here’s how we bill

The billing also needs to be covered during intake, and there are several items to explain.

  • Quote the retainer amount and explain how the retainer system works.

If it’s a security deposit, for example, let the client know that there will still be a bill to pay each month. Or, if the firm works against the retainer, explain that the client will get a statement showing what has been spent and also that the amount will have to be replenished as it gets used up.

  • Show a sample bill and explain how it’s formatted and what each category means.
  • Tell whether the firm bills by the half hour or tenth of an hour or whatever.
  • If the timekeepers’ initials will appear on the bills, identify those people so the client will know who did what.
  • Tell if there will be charges for out-of-pocket expenses.
  • If the bills will be higher in some months, perhaps the month before a trial, explain it.
  • Finally, give an estimate of the total cost for the best and worst possible scenarios, perhaps that if the matter is settled, the cost will be $5,000, but if it goes to court, the fee could run as high as $15,000.

Here’s the record path

Record management too needs to be discussed at the initial conversation.

And Shields points out that there needs to be a written agreement, whether separate or in the engagement letter, outlining the full records picture.

Tell whether the records will be stored physically or electronically. Tell what will happen to the record at the end of the matter and how long the firm will store it. Tell what copies the client is entitled to and whether those copies will be paper or electronic.

Include too any office requirements. For example, if the firm has a policy that clients must pick up their records in person, put that in the agreement.

And here’s your contact person

Every client also needs a contact person for questions and concerns, Shields adds.

The attorney should make the introduction, perhaps “if ever you have questions or if there is a concern you don’t want to discuss with me, just call So-and-So.”

That too makes clients comfortable dealing with the firm. That’s top service.


Related reading:

Reduce your risk of malpractice claims with a centralized calendar system


Why you should consider automating your client screening process


How are your billing and collecting processes?


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