OSB Professional Liability Fund

Better Beginnings for Onboarding New Clients

October 18, 2019
by Sheila Blackford

Lawyer-client relationships deserve good beginnings. Good beginnings may seem unachievable on the days when we are strapped for time and feel pressed to get to the lawyering. Relax. Let’s strive for better beginnings for onboarding new clients.

Client Intake

Client Intake is one of the things that many busy lawyers reluctantly admit skipping or doing less thoroughly. Client intake is a lot like flossing one’s teeth: skimping on the regularity and thoroughness can lead to serious avoidable problems down the road.

The goal of client intake is to be efficient and effective in capturing the basic details early on. How early? Before you commence working on a matter. 

Done well, client intake will provide you with complete contact information so that you don’t lose the ability to contact your client. This may seem obvious, but all too frequently  in an emergency, such as contacting these clients in the event of your untimely impairment or death, there are scant details to be found in the client file. 

Conflicts-of-Interest Search

Not to be overlooked, the intake form should give you adequate information to do a proper conflicts-of-interest search. Cases in the court record attest to the seriousness of an existing impermissible conflict of interest. Just ask the offending lawyer made to disgorge his or her legal fees. We like to say that you should do a conflict-of-interest search three times: before taking the case; at the time of engagement; and any time a new party enters the case. Who should you enter into your search? Your client’s variously used names, opposing parties, related parties, and, in the case of property interests, enter the address and assessor’s parcel number.

And while you are entering names into your conflicts system, enter the names of those prospective clients you’d love to represent so that you don’t kill your chances by taking a case with someone in an adverse position. If you are a small firm, you likely know everyone at your office, but in a bigger firm, you may just have a nodding acquaintance with the people in accounting or the mailroom. So put their names into your conflicts system to avoid hard feelings if  they should find themselves as the opposing party of a firm client.

Reasonable Expectations

Keep in mind that a client with unreasonable expectations is going to be an unhappy client, and an unhappy client is not a client you want. Watching too many TV programs about lawyers can give the misperception that cases move along quickly and are wrapped up before the credits roll. Not very realistic, except to someone who has never been a client. Litigation…is…slow. Your clients may be disappointed to hear how long their case will likely take, but they would be much, much more disappointed to not hear it.

Clear Roadmaps

Do you know the most important question your client wants to ask you? “What is going to happen next?” There is a clear process of how your case will move from that first timorous handshake to that last enthusiastic handshake as they walk out the door. Discuss the need for answering interrogatories or enduring depositions or releasing access to sensitive medical records that may have little or nothing to do with their personal injury case. If you can give some realistic timelines, your clients can avoid planning their vacation during the time you will need to work with them.Your client needs to understand the journey before signing on for taking it.

Communications

An unhappy client waits for a return phone call that he or she believes should have arrived yesterday or the day before that. And that same client may believe that the email he or she sent you after dinner will be read and responded to before bedtime. At the beginning of your relationship, let your client know that your firm’s goal in responding to phone calls and emails is within 24 hours or by the end of the next business day or whatever your firm communication protocol may be. What is a reasonable time? That amount of time may vary by practice area, but it safe to say less than a week and more than a minute.

Stress Reduction

Whose stress? Your client’s stress may increase your stress and vice versa. Lawyers reflecting at the conclusion of an arduous and stressful client matter that generated an ethics violation or malpractice claim too often voice that they knew they should have terminated the relationship or never taken it in the first place. No one goes to see a lawyer because they are having a good day. Your clients are encountering some of the scariest and worst days of their life. Some paper or digital handouts can help lower stress levels when given to your client at the end of the initial conference. For example, discuss the roadmap of their case and provide a handout detailing these case phases. Be sure to let your clients know that the inherent uncertainties in their case may cause speed bumps on their journey.

One of the things that worked well with my elder law clients was that I gave them their own client folder with a copy of their signed fee agreement and note paper. I told my clients to write down their questions, and I provided them with copies of important papers hole-punched and stamped “for your client file.” I asked my clients to bring their folders with them to their office appointment. I believe this encouraged them to stay connected to their case and cut down on them forgetting what they intended to discuss during their previous call. Happy elderly clients can be identified by their propensity to give hugs and cookies. As the baby boomers continue to get older, there will be more than enough elder law clients to go around!

I hope that this blog post will get you brainstorming about better beginnings for onboarding your new clients.