With each person I have taken on as a client, new issues have come up that have taught me a great deal about my practice area. I have learned that sometimes just asking the potential client one more question during intake can be the deciding factor on whether to accept the case or not. For that reason, having a good client intake process, and one that is adaptable and constantly improving, is one of the most important aspects of a successful law practice. The following are some examples of lessons I have learned from my intake process in the past, and how I have been able to improve over time.
Why A Good Client Intake Process is Essential to Success
As a plaintiff’s personal injury attorney, intake is probably the most important moment in my relationship with clients. When I first started my practice, one of my mentors told me that I should be laser-focused and alert during the initial meeting. Whether it’s a telephone or email inquiry, or a face-to-face meeting with a potential client, I am interviewing the client just like he or she is interviewing me.
One of my earliest cases involved a client injured in an automobile accident. The client claimed that the adverse driver ran the red light, causing the collision that injured my client. The client was confident that the other driver ran the light.
I accepted the case, and immediately began my investigation. To my chagrin, when I obtained a copy of the police report, I learned that three witnesses at different vantage points in the intersection witnessed my client run the red light!
You can imagine my disappointment (and my client’s) when I regrettably informed him that his case was a loser.
What did I learn? Always ask the client if there were witnesses! I admit, it may be obvious now. But when I first started my practice, I may have overlooked key issues in a personal injury case in my haste to accept new business. You can bet that this question, and others that will help me prove liability are now on my standard intake form.
Collecting Thorough Information
Another one of my early cases involved a woman who tripped and fell on a misplaced brick in her neighbor’s backyard, breaking her shoulder in the process. I accepted the case, and sent the appropriate notifications to the insurance company.
As a personal injury attorney, issues related to communications with insurance companies come up frequently. Most accidents will involve some form of insurance coverage. This means that the party on the other side of the table is often an insurance-company adjuster. Unfortunately, the adjuster often makes contact with my clients before I do.
It’s extremely important to collect any and all information related to communications with insurance companies upfront in order to properly evaluate a case. This is where having a thorough, yet efficient intake process is key.
Several months after I accepted the case, when my client had completed her medical treatment, I began negotiating with the insurance company. Little did I know that my client had given a recorded statement and lengthy interview to the adjuster before she hired me!
The adjuster played me my client’s statement, wherein she told the adjuster that she had known about the misplaced brick in the past. She even tried avoiding it on previous occasions! There really wasn’t much I could do to counter the adjuster’s argument that my client was at-least partially responsible for her own injuries in this case.
What did I learn from this experience? Always ask the client whether he or she has already given a statement to the insurance company! I always tell my clients and friends that ideally, it’s better to not discuss the case with an insurance company adjuster, and that I should handle all communications for the client.
While it’s not an automatic bar to vigorously pursuing recovery in the appropriate case, in many cases a client’s statements to the insurance company can destroy an otherwise valid personal injury claim.
Now, when interviewing a potential client, the question whether the client has discussed the claim with an insurance company is always highlighted and bolded on my questionnaire! Having a proper intake process ensures that I have access to all the relevant information before I accept a case, saving me a lot of wasted time in the process.
Avoiding Conflicts and Problematic Clients
As my mentor told me, I am interviewing the client just like he or she is interviewing me. Can we get along? Will our personalities fit enough for us to accomplish our goals? Will the relationship pose ethical conflicts? These are more of a gut-question.
When I had a client who wanted me to pay her rent one week after accepting her case, I knew I had a problem on my hands. When I patiently explained that ethical considerations prohibited this sort of arrangement, I received a barrage of harassing emails from the client. She blamed me for all her problems, including her impending homelessness.
That I had known her for only one week and she was four decades my senior was no matter! I knew this client would be a challenge, and her case just wasn’t worth it. My gut told me to withdraw from the representation, which is exactly what I did. Had I done a better job of evaluating my potential relationship with this client during the intake process, I could have saved hours of my time.
My mentor told me that I should never discount my gut feeling. We all have intuition that tells us whether we are making the right decision on a case or client. When I receive calls from other attorneys asking me for advice on their cases, I can usually tell which way their gut is leaning. I tell them to follow their gut, just like my mentor told me.
Once again, this experience taught me valuable lessons and I was able to adjust my intake process accordingly. I learned about the importance of evaluating not just the legal matter, but also the relationship, before accepting any case in order to avoid working with the wrong type of clients.
In my intake process now, I am always careful to focus on both aspects in order to ensure a mutually beneficial relationship in which both parties are likely to have a successful outcome.
Developing an effective client intake process is one of the most important steps toward building a law practice. It helps lawyers get all the information they need to make better decisions, screen out bad cases early on, and focus most of their energy on client relationships that will yield both sides a positive result.
Successful client intake is a constantly evolving process. We all improve with time and experience. With each client that walks through our doors, we learn more about the process. We are building relationships and learning how to practice law more efficiently.
As we attempt to add value to our clients’ lives, we should also remember we are building our own brand at the same time. By creating a more efficient intake process, we add value to our communities and improve the overall practice of law. That’s something that benefits everyone.
Michael Rubinstein is the owner of the Law Office of Michael E. Rubinstein, a personal injury practice serving clients throughout Los Angeles and Orange Counties. Prior to graduating Loyola Law School, Michael was ordained as a rabbi by a panel of prominent international rabbis. He uses his unique background as a rabbi and lawyer to help successfully represent his clients in a variety of personal injury matters. You can learn more by visiting his website and reading his daily Tort Talk blog at www.rabbilawyer.com. Follow him on twitter at @rabbilawyer.