Feb. 16, 2011 – There’s an old saying in the practice of law that the first time you hear the prospective client’s story, that’s the best it will ever be. Connecticut lawyer Adrian Baron recently suggested potential “red flags” for evaluating client representation on his blog, www.Nutmeglawyer.com. These were a few examples of when you might find the prospective client to be, in Baron’s words, “a few pages short of a legal brief.” Warning signs or not, a lawyer’s first client meeting will most likely set the tone for the rest of the representation.
First impressions count
Your very first meeting with a prospective client is one of the most important meetings you will have with the client. Effective client intake establishes many of the relevant aspects of the client relationship. Following an initial visit with a lawyer, the client develops certain expectations that will guide the client’s thinking as the matter proceeds. Ideally, these expectations will be based on what the lawyer actually said; however, in reality, the expectations will usually be based on what the client thought they heard. For these reasons, ongoing client communications are critical, especially when events occur that will affect the client’s expectations.
Defining client expectations
Every client expects their lawyer to make them aware of certain information. For example, how the anticipated legal process will work and how long the process might take. The client also wants to know the actual strategy for addressing their legal issues as well as a range of likely results. Of special importance will be the anticipated overall cost of the legal services, how the services will be billed, and when payment of the legal fees will be expected. Lawyers would also do well to explain to the client what will happen if legal fees are not paid as they are billed.
The initial interview
If possible, in-person meetings are better. Meeting prospective clients face-to-face lets you judge their credibility. Are there holes in their stories? Does everything fit together? Schedule a free consultation to meet them in person, or charge a flat fee for the consult, to be credited on their account if they hire you. You will need a client intake form and a client intake checklist. The checklist is for the attorney, secretary, or paralegal to use behind the scenes when doing the telephone screening, and again later for the initial interview. It prompts you to collect all the essential information you need to know for a preliminary conflict check. The intake form, on the other hand, when completed contains all relevant information for your financial due diligence, client contact info, and billing information including any fee agreements.
Reasons to decline a prospect
We’ve all had situations where our instincts tell us not to engage with a certain client. Watch out when the prospective client thinks all their previous lawyers were “idiots” or makes otherwise derogatory statements about lawyers in general. Representation is probably not a good idea if you do not agree with the prospect’s legal position or you do not believe the prospect is being truthful. Certainly this is true when the matter is outside your normal area(s) of expertise. Exercise caution if the prospect indicates they know the law and what they want to do and just need your services to do the front end work for them. Also, beware when the prospect cannot demonstrate they can pay for the cost of your services, balk at paying a retainer, and/or ask for a special reduced rate or payment terms up front.
The use of fee agreements
Wisconsin lawyers are now required to use written fee agreements in most matters, and the Rules of Professional Responsibility specify certain minimum requirements for those agreements. SCR 20:1.5 requires written fee agreements for any matter in which it is reasonably foreseeable that the total cost (fees plus expenses) will exceed $1,000. Key elements of any fee agreement include: (1) identifying the client, (2) defining the scope of the representation, (3) describing the fee arrangement in detail, and (4) defining when the representation will begin and when it will end. Any changes or extension of the work beyond what is described will necessitate another fee agreement or perhaps a change order. Lawyers should use new fee agreements each time they undertake new matters, even for existing clients.
Managing client expectations
A client who is well informed, is engaged in the process, and sees the matter proceeding in line with expectations will be more satisfied with your service. Never surprise a client with the amount of a bill. Client dissatisfaction may not surface until it creates a collection issue. Properly managing client expectations will result in the improvement of many financial indicators. These include billing realization, billing turnover, collection realization, and collection turnover. Improving each of these indicators by a few percentage points can result in significant additional revenue for both the lawyer and the law firm. The better the information and the more realistic the client’s expectations, the more successful the attorney/client relationship will be.
Often our personal “red flags” simply justify our emotional and intuitive responses. In other words, we should trust our gut instincts. Lawyer David Gotzh simplified that standard into: “If the client has crazy eyes, I don’t retain them.” Whatever your method, pay close attention to effective client intake and set the stage for client satisfaction and positive referrals.
About the author
Michael Moore, Lewis and Clark 1983, is a professional coach for lawyers and the founder of Moore’s Law, Milwaukee. He specializes in marketing, client development, and leadership coaching for attorneys at all levels of experience. Moore also advises law firms on strategic planning and resource optimization. He has more than 25 years’ experience in private practice, as a general counsel, in law firm management, and in legal recruiting. For more information, visit www.moores-law.com.