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You've finally got clients coming in the door! Clients are coming! After hanging your shingle, advertising, handling your aunt's cat's estate plan and living will, and redesigning your firm stationary for the 65th time, you finally have a few client intakes lined up.
What steps should you take to protect the client's interests, as well as your own? Here are five things you should be doing to ensure that you end up with conflict-free, sane, paying clients:
This is the first step in most cases: running your client's name, the adversary's name, and any related business entities through your system to see if you've ever represented anyone related to the case. If a name pops up, you'll want to do some more digging to see what the conflict is: Was this a consultation on an unrelated matter ten years ago, or is this a current client of the firm for this exact case? If any waivers for conflicts are necessary, those need to be handled before you get any confidential information.
What happens if you don't? You'll almost certainly be fired. You'll probably lose some fees. And things get really heated, you might even end up with a bar discipline case.
Some of this information you'll have from the conflicts check. In fact, many people do the intake paperwork before the conflicts check, often though a website form. If you do this step first, be sure that your form doesn't allow clients to submit confidential information that could create a conflict with an existing client.
Intake forms should include basic biographical data (name, contact info, date of birth, etc.). We'd also recommend individualized questionnaires for different types of cases -- personal injury questionnaires should look very different from estate planning or divorce consultations.
Here are a couple of sample forms that might come in handy:
This isn't just your chance to impress the potential client -- it's the client's chance to impress you.
You need to look for signs of problem clients, especially clients who are shopping for their third or fourth attorney. You need to consider whether you can handle the case -- is it an unfamiliar practice area or niche issue?
Also, consider having an assistant do a little Google-fu on clients before they come in, to make sure you don't have some raving loon who likes to write psychotic rants online (especially on review sites).
If you want the case, shift gears and impress the client by selling yourself as a legal professional. Don't get too excited and overpromise or otherwise blow the "sale" -- just be yourself, and impress the client with your legal acumen and desire to help them with their problem.
If you and the client decide to move forward, this is the part where you'll draft the retainer agreement and talk about payment options. For most clients, having them put down a retainer or pay a deposit in advance is a good idea -- folks with legal problems tend to deprioritize paying their lawyer once the case is closed.
If you do not take the case, consider whether you need give him or her a non-engagement letter. These letters warn non-clients of possible time limits on their claims and explain, in writing, that you are not representing them. As we said before, "When in doubt, write it out."
If you do take the case, don't just put the file in a drawer and the check in the bank. You should immediately put your client's information into your practice management system (assuming you have one, and you really should, preferably a cloud-based system).
Basically, this is where you create the case plan. For familiar case types and practice areas, you probably know what paperwork will be required and when, but consider having checklists for each type of case to make sure you don't skip steps. You also need to check for filing deadlines and statutes of limitations and put those in the calendar, with reminders set for a least a week beforehand.
Did we miss anything crucial steps in the client intake process? Tweet us with your tips @FindLawLP.
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