Plugging the Leak: Employing Efficient Intake Practices to Avoid the Loss of Valuable Time
Written by: Neil Pedersen
The intake process represents one of the most important yet least productive parts of a law practice. Whether you labor in a large firm or a solo practice, if your responsibilities include developing business, many dozens of hours a year go into speaking with potential new clients. Depending on your practice area, many and perhaps most of these people do not materialize into actual clients. Numerous people are simply looking for free advice. Many others present matters you decide not to take for a variety of reasons. In short, intake is the proverbial equivalent to “kissing many frogs to find the prince.”
Many attorneys feel that intake is so fragile and important that it should not be delegated to others or pushed into an application process without significant personal contact. However, the alternative may well be a significant amount of your most valuable asset – time – lost to a process that does not always result in a financial payoff.
Depending on your practice area, there are several processes you can put in place to significantly reduce the time drain that intake can place on your practice. This article is intended to provide a few suggestions for intake practices that will be effective and efficient.
Create and Use Customized Intake Applications
To learn about whether a matter fits your selection criteria, you need to assess the facts of the matter and other important information related to the potential client. The traditional way to learn that information is a personal interview, on the phone or in person. However both of those methods absolutely guarantee you will be giving time away. The other way to gather that information is to have the potential client tell you about their matter in writing, where all the time expended prior to submission is expended by the client.
Creating the Customized Application
A customized intake application seeking information about the matter can be created and used to direct the potential client to provide the facts you want to learn about. The intake application should be custom tailored to the key facts you need to absorb to make a preliminary intake decision. This means asking for information about the merits of the potential claim, as well as other important information you need to assess the potential client and the case. One of the most helpful areas of questions to include in an intake application relates to possible instant disqualifying information. A few sample questions of this type include:
•Have you entered into any attorney-client agreements with any other attorneys related to the subject matter of this intake application?
•Have you filed for bankruptcy protection in the last three years?
•Have you ever been convicted of, or pleaded nolo contendere to, any crimes (not traffic infractions), and if yes, please identify each such conviction or plea.
•Have you signed any releases or other agreements related to the subject matter of this intake application?
Other important elements of a customized intake application relate to those facts usually used by you to make an intake decision, based on your unique practice area. For instance a plaintiffs’ employment attorney needs to understand several foundational facts that are best learned early in the process. Some examples include the following:
•Does your employment agreement or Employee Handbook state that you are required to arbitrate claims against your employer?
•Have you signed any documents upon termination of your employment, like a severance agreement or other exit interview documentation?
•If you believe you have been wrongfully terminated, what is the reason you were given for your termination?
•If you believe you have been wrongfully terminated, what do you believe to be the real reason you were terminated and what evidence do you have of that real reason?
•Have you filed a complaint with either the Department of Fair Employment and Housing or the EEOC related to the facts stated in this intake application?
Of course, questions related to liability, damages and collectability are all important and appropriate for the intake application, and should be tailored to the attorney’s practice area. Firms or attorneys who have more than one practice area should consider creating a different intake application for uniquely different practice areas to make the form seem less foreign to the client and more efficient for the attorney.
Presenting the Application to the Potential Client
As will be discussed later in this article, the most efficient way to use the intake application is to have it provided to the client by support staff on the client’s first call to the office. Our firm makes the application available in many ways. It can be downloaded as a pdf document from our web page for those with internet access. It can be emailed as a pdf document if requested. For those clients without computer access, our office will mail the package to the client and include a self-addressed stamped envelope for the completed application. For those with more tech-savvy, a fill-in-the-blank electronic form could be used.
A record should be kept of every potential client who was sent an intake application. After the passage of approximately two weeks, if the intake application has not been returned, a follow up phone call should be made. If the client indicates any difficulty in preparing the application, a member of the office staff can assist them on the phone or in person. For those clients who appear to be completely incapable of filling out the application, you can assign a staff member to sit with the client and fill out the application for the potential client. It is also important to have the application translated into all of the languages that your firm can competently handle so as to make the intake process as comfortable as possible for the potential client.
The goal of this part of the process has to be to make the application process as personal and comfortable as possible.
Benefits to an Intake Application Process
There are several benefits to using an intake application process.
First, funneling all potential new clients into the application process will weed out those persons seeking to take your time without the intent of paying you for your time. It has been my experience that the majority of the time those who take the time to prepare the intake application are not those persons looking for fee advice. Those free-advice-seekers simply go elsewhere and bleed off someone else’s time.
Second, by creating a custom intake application, you can focus your intake analysis on issues and facts that really matter to you. By contrast, often potential client calls and meetings digress into areas that are not material to your intake decision. Winnowing out the chaff from the wheat through focused questions on an intake application makes your participation in the process far more efficient.
Third, with an intake application, you can immediately weed out matters that are non-starters based on factors that it takes time to get to in a potential client meeting or call. For instance, the instant disqualifiers section can lead you to a near instant decision to reject the matter. Financial issues introducing a possible inability to pay, or information disclosing other undesirable factors may be other instant disqualifiers. In a normal intake interview, those issues, being collateral to the case, are usually not covered at the beginning of the discussion. But quickly scanning an application for an instant disqualifier can save you the effort of even reading the entire application, let alone the time you would have spent in a call or meeting before learning about the same facts.
Fourth, the intake application process allows you to weed out those potential new clients who have no real interest in cooperating with you as needed. Preparing the intake application takes some work, but nothing like the work you will need from your client once you are engaged as counsel. It is my belief that if a client is unwilling to spend the time it takes to prepare an intake application, that client is likely the same client that balks at working diligently with you to achieve his or her ends in the matter for which you have been engaged. My opinion: if the potential client decides to go elsewhere because he or she does not want to prepare the intake application, even with offered assistance of office staff, then better that client go elsewhere.
Fifth, even the most complex intake application takes far less time for the attorney to read than a client meeting or call, sometimes by a factor of ten times or more. If the application reveals a matter with potential for the firm, some follow up can occur, or you can set a meeting or call that potential client, knowing with some confidence that you are dealing with a matter that has a far greater chance that you will not be wasting your time. If the application discloses facts that make the matter a clear “no thank you,” you have made the assessment in far less time.
One of my primary practice areas is wrongful termination and employment discrimination, harassment and retaliation. A vast majority of the calls my firm receives are from employees who believe they have been subjected to unfair treatment or have been terminated “wrongfully.” Yet perhaps 75% of those inquiries are employees who do not understand that it is not legally wrongful to be treated harshly by a manager or to be terminated for reasons with which they disagree, unless the motivation for that conduct is legally wrongful. By using an intake application, after weeding out the free-advice-takers, I can quickly identify another 75% of those who submit applications whose cases I would not have taken. After reviewing the intake applications, I am left with a handful of matters that have potential, and I spend my valuable intake time on those matters.
The Down-Side to Use of Applications
There is, of course, a down-side to the application process. There is no question that some matters will be lost where the potential client wanted immediate attorney attention, or where the potential client does not want to write out all they want you to know. Also there is no question the lack of immediate attorney personal contact can cause some potential matters to go elsewhere where they are comparing firms and one is more personal than the other. The question that needs to be answered on a practice-by-practice basis is whether the good outweighs the bad by instituting an intake application process.
In my practice, before instituting the intake application process, a normal intake call would cost me about 20 minutes of my time. Some were much longer. A few were shorter. I was getting approximately 50 new matter calls in a month. That means I was spending no less than 17 hours a month on initial intake calls. By comparison, after instituting the intake application process, those 50 new matter calls were funneled into the process, resulting in about 20 intake applications, of which I disposed of approximately 15 in summary fashion, leaving about 5 a month that looked like they had potential, into which I invested my time. The time savings was substantial as I was able to turn 17+ hours of basic information gathering time into perhaps one hour of application review time. In my mind, that 15% increase in productive time that was made available to me by use of the application process compensated me for the occasional lost matter.
Screen Intake Calls
Many attorneys unfailingly take the initial intake call from a potential client. While that process certainly conveys a personal touch to the client that may cement the relationship from the outset, it comes at a great price. If your practice area involves an extensive sifting of the potential clients to find matters worthy of your time and money, many of those initial calls will result in no new matter, and the expenditure of significant time you could have devoted to many other productive pursuits.
I rarely speak to a potential new client on their first call to the firm. I train my staff to determine the practice area implicated by the call and to immediately explain our intake process, which involves the intake application. The client is then guided into that process and assisted as needed.
Proper training of the support staff who will have initial contact with potential clients is critical to the successful implementation of this process. The potential client needs to be made to feel important and cared for -- not like livestock being herded into a pen. The intake personnel must understand this concept. A rough script for use by those personnel would be appropriate until they are thoroughly trained and experienced. Role playing practice and monitoring of calls with constructive training can maximize the effectiveness of your staff in this process.
One advantage to this approach is that the potential client is immediately guided into the intake process on his or her first call to the office. The client is not asked to leave a message for a call back when you are available. The call is unquestionably occurring at a time when finding an attorney is on the potential client’s mind. If not immediately guided into an intake process at your firm, you may very well lose the client to another firm they call next while waiting for your call back.
Use Non-Lawyers or Less Expensive Lawyers Where Possible
Delegation is one of the fundamental requirements to efficient office operation. You should not be performing acts that could be competently performed by people who cost the firm far less than your value to the firm. Similarly, it makes sound business sense to use non-lawyers to competently perform acts that do not require a lawyer to perform. This dynamic exists in the intake process as much as it does in other essential office functions.
There are several stages in the intake process where competent and well-trained non-lawyers can be used. As discussed above, the initial intake call can be proficiently handled by a trained legal assistant, paralegal or law clerk. Assisting the client with the intake application can be equally well handled by a non-lawyer. My office also regularly uses trained non-lawyers to engage in follow-up phone calls to some potential new clients to gather additional information I have determined that we need to receive, following my review of the intake application.
Another powerful time-saver can be use of properly trained non-lawyer personnel to work with the client immediately after the client is engaged. Use of a paralegal or law clerk to work closely with the new client can create some very helpful work product for use with the engagement. My office uses trained law clerks to engage in a thorough factual download with the client and gathering of all documents that would be needed for the matter. Those same clerks prepare a writing that contains all the information learned for future use on the matter. They also review and chronologically organize all of the client-provided documents. The net result is a client has been identified, signed up, and a tremendous factual foundation is laid, with a relatively small investment of my time.
There are several other ways you can streamline your intake process. Fundamentally, just learning to say “no thank you” earlier in an intake call can save you dozens of hours. Other law practices can use a consultation fee for new matter meetings to weed out those looking for free advice, or where the initial consultation meeting conveys significant legal value to the client. It is important that we all look critically at our intake processes and determine if we are leaking off too many valuable hours through inefficient practices.
Very few attorneys have too many matters. Most attorneys want more clients, and most want to maximize the amount of matters we have in our book of business. The drive to maximize the number of new matters however can lead us to spend far more time than is prudent to achieve that goal. By creating efficiency-maximizing intake procedures and practices we create an appropriate balance and we capture far more time. Hopefully by implementing one or more of the intake procedures discussed in this article, you will reclaim some of your irreplaceable primary asset – your time.
Neil Pedersen is a 23-year litigation attorney and the principal of Pedersen Heck McQueen, APLC, an Irvine-based employment, insurance and business litigation firm. He co-developed and co-taught the new Law Practice Management and Technology class at Western State College of Law. He was a member of the Executive Committee of the Orange County Bar Association Solo & Small Firm Section for 7 years, and was its Chair in 2007. He has regularly lectured on law practice management subjects over the last ten years, and he authored a chapter entitled “Operating Successfully in a Solo or Small Firm Environment: What Lawyers Need to Know Before Striking Out on their Own.” in the book “Inside the Minds: Establishing a Successful Solo Practice” published by Aspatore Books, a Thomson Reuters business in September 2011.
If there is no support staff, it is still far more efficient to use this process, for the reasons to be stated later in this article.