Client intake in law firms is the process of onboarding new clients and acquiring the personal information that is needed to open their legal cases. The client intake process can be an incredibly time-consuming exercise for solo and small firm attorneys. Usually, it’s also an unbillable one.
Whether you’re just starting your own firm or you own an established practice, a streamlined client intake is key for making a good first impression on clients and keeping your practice running efficiently.
Here’s everything you need to know about creating a strong client intake process for your law firm—including an overview of the client intake stages, some best practices, and thoughts around online and automated client intake processes.
Overview of the client intake process
Client intake is more than just getting potential new clients to fill out an intake form: It’s an entire process of attracting and hiring new clients, from their first interaction with your firm to the moment they sign an engagement letter. Arguably, client intake also involves onboarding new clients after they’ve signed on with your law firm.
The intake process can be divided into several stages:
- Attracting a new potential client. Clients might find you through a friend, by coming across your website when searching for information related to their legal issue, or by searching for a law firm in their city or town.
- Capturing contact information. Making it easy for potential clients to share their contact information with you is key for moving them towards becoming a client.
- Pre-screening. Before you book an initial consultation, save time by asking for enough information to determine whether a given client is a fit for your firm from the get-go.
- Conflict checking. Make sure there’s no reason you can’t work for a potential client.
- Scheduling and holding an initial consultation. Allow clients to book meetings with you via an app like Acuity Scheduling.
- Collecting key information via an intake questionnaire. Ask clients to provide key information you’ll need for their case.
- Creating a fee agreement—and getting it signed. With the right tools, you can generate this form automatically from information in the client’s intake questionnaire.
- New client onboarding. Send clients information on when to expect bills and in what format, how to pay bills, and when you’re available to help set expectations and lead to a smoother experience for all involved.
By paying close attention to your law firm’s overall client intake process, you can find opportunities to streamline individual elements of client intake—for a better experience for your clients and a lighter workload for your firm. For example, if you’re currently using paper intake forms, you may want to consider switching to an online version that clients can fill out in the comfort of their homes. More on that later.
Client intake best practices
Lawyer-client relationships are extremely important, so it’s important to start them off right. During the client intake process, show that you’re listening to your future clients and that you’re engaged with their issue, while also making the process as simple as possible for them.
A good client intake process should be straightforward for your client, be efficient for your staff, keep information organized for all involved, and add a personal touch that shows clients you care.
Read on for other best practices to follow for client intake:
1. Document your client intake policies and processes
How should your staff handle calls or emails from prospective clients? Who schedules consultations? Where can client intake forms be found? What happens when a potential client visits your office? Most answers to these questions are common sense, but it’s still a good idea to clarify expectations for lawyers and staff.
2. Conduct a thoughtful pre-screen
The easiest way to waste time on client intake is to spend time onboarding clients that you know won’t be a good fit. Lawyers love to help, but not every problem or person is a match for your practice area, workload, or firm size, and it’s OK to say no to those who would be better served elsewhere.
To pre-screen clients, try setting up a short phone call to assess the matter at hand. What is the person hoping you can help with? Have they worked with a lawyer before?
If you decide the client isn’t a good fit after this initial call, refer them to another attorney in your network or to a website or organization that may be able to give them information they’re looking for. Even though you’re not taking this person on as a client, they’ll still remember your help—and will be more likely to refer you to friends or family who could actually be a good fit for your firm.
Ensure scheduling these calls is simple for both you and your prospective clients. For example, Jennifer Reynolds, a family lawyer and founder of Fresh Legal in Ottawa, Canada, clearly shows potential clients where to go on her home page with a “become a client: schedule a free call” button:
This takes visitors to a page where they can schedule a call or request an in-person meeting based on Jennifer’s availability. Jennifer uses Acuity Scheduling for this.
3. Listen, listen, listen during your initial consult
Listen to your client and be emotionally sensitive during your initial consultation or phone call. Often, people come to lawyers for help facing extremely difficult life challenges (even if it’s a business matter, there’s likely some level of emotion or stress involved), and making a prospective client feel comfortable from the start could help them choose to work with you.
4. Take time to discuss fees
When you conduct your initial consultation, leave time to discuss your billing process, accepted methods of payment (e.g., check or credit card), and all things payment related. This is key for setting expectations and ensuring that your client can pay for your services in a way that works for both them and your firm. Don’t hesitate to discuss alternative billing methods—for example, if you bill flat fees instead of hourly, or if you offer payment plans.
5. Integrate with your practice management software
Duplicate data entry is time-consuming and leaves room for error—this is not a good situation for law firms dealing with a myriad of data fields during the client intake process.
Luckily, there’s a simple solution for this: Set up your client intake process so that all information is inputted or imported directly into your practice management software.
For example, Jennifer uses Zapier to automatically create new contacts and matters and push information from her client intake forms to custom fields within Clio. (Zapier lets people set up custom connections, or “zaps,” between different apps without the need for any coding knowledge.) It works like this:
Prior to a consultation meeting, potential clients fill out two online forms that I built. All of the questions on these forms link to custom fields in Clio. I created two separate forms as I wanted the “new contact” trigger in Zapier to happen regardless of whether the client retained me, but I did not want the “new matter” trigger to occur until after the meeting and only if the client retained me.
The first form asks for contact information that links to “contact custom fields.” Using Zapier, this form automatically creates a contact in Clio. The second form provides matter-specific information, including names and dates, and links to “matter custom fields.” Again using Zapier, this form automatically creates a note in Evernote that I can review and print in advance of the meeting. If the client retains me, a simple copy/paste in the response spreadsheet of the second form triggers Zapier to create a new matter, and I immediately have information required for initial court forms at my fingertips.
A client fills out their information once—no painstaking double entry.
6. Track potential clients by their stage in the client intake process.
Don’t let potential clients fall through the cracks: Break your client intake process into well-defined stages, such as “not yet contacted”, “needs follow-up”, or “intake form pending,” for a clear picture of which clients you need to take action on—and what needs to happen.
7. Automate engagement agreements.
With document automation software, you can create standardized templates to encompass a variety of different situations and matter types, and then use software to auto-populate the appropriate data into these templates.
8. Offer e-signatures.
When it comes to bringing on new clients, your goal should always be to minimize barriers. One of the best ways to streamline your intake process is to offer e-signatures on fee agreements and other documents.
9. Never stop improving
Whatever improvements you make, it’s important to keep in mind that your client intake process will never be perfect: Reevaluate your process on a regular cadence (e.g., every six months) to see if there are opportunities to make your process more efficient or improve the experience for potential clients.
Why firms are moving to online client intake
Traditionally, client intake involves having new law firm clients fill out a paper form, which a staff member then painstakingly types out. In the digital age, there’s no need to struggle with printing, scanning, or photocopying client intake forms. Solutions like Google forms can help take your client intake process online, removing the potential for lost pieces of paper and eliminating the need for duplicate data entry.
For example, Jennifer Reynolds uses two online client intake forms to gather new client information: The first client intake form collects contact information for all potential clients, whether they retain her services or not, while the second client intake form collects new matter information for incoming clients.
With online client intake tools and forms, you can streamline your firm’s client intake process while reducing the risk of error.
Here are a few other benefits of moving your client intake online:
1. Improved organization and workflow
Most firms still use manual, disjointed processes for intake: jotting down notes by hand; logging data in MS Office or Google Docs; sending out PDFs for clients to print, fill out, scan and send back; etc.
An online intake solution helps you stay organized and cuts down the time you spend working on trivial intake tasks—allowing you to focus most of your energy on the legal work you’re actually paid for.
Lexicata, for example, was built to be an all-in-one “top of the funnel” solution, and other products are emerging with similar goals in mind—including a CRM for tracking leads, an online form builder, and a built in e-signature solution for engagement letters.
Using these tools, you can create a systematic workflow for managing your prospects, intaking new matters, and then seamlessly pushing the data over to Clio as soon as a matter goes from “pending” to “hired.” All you have to do is get to work!
2. Reduced data entry
Nobody likes data entry. It’s boring, frustrating, and time-consuming. Whether you do it yourself or pay somebody to do it, the end result is always a fruitless expenditure of time and money.
The beauty of using online forms to conduct your intake process—as opposed to Word documents or handwritten notes—is that your clients do much of the data entry for you.
When you send out an online form and the client submits it, that data can then be exported to Clio to automatically create a contact with the appropriate information. Even if it’s just for contact details, you’ll save up to five minutes on every single contact you create.
3. Better client experience
With the millennial generation reaching the age where they are the primary decision makers in homes and businesses, consumer expectations and behaviors are changing rapidly.
We spend more time with our smartphones than our spouses. We communicate through mobile messaging and social media apps. We use mobile devices to check our email (66% of the time) and access digital media (60% of the time). Above all, we expect everything to be incredibly easy and user-friendly.
The last thing we want to do is fill something out by hand, or….(gasp)…print something out!
By allowing clients to fill out forms online (even from their beloved mobile devices) you are making life easy, not only for yourself, but—most importantly—for your clients.
It’s just good customer service—and when you’re in a service industry, you know that good service is the key to customer satisfaction, repeat business, and more referrals.
4. Better data tracking and analytics
Finally, attorneys should be most excited about data. Most law firms do a very lackluster job of utilizing data to make better decisions. But, as downward price pressure continues and the market becomes increasingly competitive, leveraging data is becoming a necessity.
When you use software to manage business processes, data is an inevitable byproduct. But, unlike using Excel or other programs which require manual data manipulation, the analytics layer can be built straight into the product.
Powerful analytics are built directly into the Lexicata dashboard to help you track important business metrics for your law firm—things like where your leads are coming from, how effectively you are converting prospects into clients, and which types of matters have the highest dollar value.
The best part? It all happens automatically. You don’t have to do anything to access these analytics, aside from inputting some data points about each client and matter during the intake process.
Automating your client intake process
According to the 2017 Legal Trends Report, lawyers only spend 29% of their time on average on billable work.
Automation can help. With the right setup, you can take your online client intake to the next level and easily bring on new clients in a fraction of the time with less data entry—and less risk of error.
There are a number of ways to automate your client intake procedures. For example, you could use tools like Traklight or Intake123 to automate small parts of the process, or you can use a website service like DirectLaw or LawLytics to integrate your website with your intake process. Another option is to use Zapier to set up a link between an online client intake form and your practice management provider, so that a new matter is created each time someone fills out a form. There are also end-to-end solutions for client intake, which allow you to automatically generate online forms, create appointments, receive documents, and more.
Whatever you choose, it’s worth exploring options for automating client intake. The time savings from the removal of extraneous data entry alone will be worth it!
A small investment for client intake can mean a big improvement for your firm. Consider the case of Palace Law, a personal injury firm with 22 staff: Just a few changes to their client intake system allowed them to meet their 2017 revenue goals by the end of Q3—a 76% increase in year-over-year revenue in just three quarters. Palace Law continues to improve on its client intake process, introducing efficiencies that add up to increased revenue for the firm.
Time is money, and time spent on non-billable tasks like client intake means less time helping clients and focusing on billable work. Use the tips in this guide to improve the procedures at your firm:
- Automate where you can … In the digital age, there’s no need to take on all the work of client intake yourself. Look for tools to help lighten the load.
- … But don’t forget a human touch. You only get one chance to make a first impression, and your firm’s client intake process is that chance. Your process should be simple and efficient, but your client should still be able to see that you care about meeting their needs.
- Always be improving. A client intake process is never perfect, so seek feedback from clients, and be on the lookout for tools and new ideas to make your procedures more efficient.
Investing in your client intake process means more than just adding operational efficiencies for your practice: You’ll serve your clients better, enhance your reputation, and drive more referrals to your firm.