Law firms work hard to attract new leads. After all, clients are the lifeblood of a law practice, and lawyers are constantly on the lookout for new cases. But when a lead becomes a prospect and a prospect turns into a potential client, it’s only the beginning. Everything comes down to one make-or-break event – the in-person initial client consultation. Here are 9 tips to help ensure that this meeting is not simply a one-off, but rather, signals the beginning of a successful attorney/client relationship:
1. Get to know the client and their case
Lawyers are often so intent on securing a new client that they overlook warning signs that a particular client might not be a good fit for them. For instance, has the client retained multiple lawyers prior to coming to you and was generally unhappy with their performance? Although many of us like to think we can work with anyone, truthfully, this might be a client who no one can satisfy.
Similarly, does the client have unrealistic expectations? Clients sometimes seek legal counsel to get revenge on someone that they feel has wronged them but their case does not have merit. Once you tell them that they do not have a cause of action, the hope is that they will adjust their expectations accordingly. However, if they don’t, they are likely not the right client for you.
2. Be an active listener
Instead of viewing communication as getting your own point across, think of it as a two-way street where active listening is critical. Ask questions for clarification, give the conversation your complete attention, and avoid framing your response while the person is still talking. Although it can sometimes be challenging, active listening can be extremely beneficial. To avoid feeling rushed or pressured, try to schedule some extra time for the meeting.
While lawyers routinely handle matters within their area of practice, they need to remember that this might be the client’s first and only legal dispute and could be the first time they’ve stepped into an attorney’s office. Instead of bragging about expanding caseloads at the initial meeting, it is more important to listen to the client’s concerns and take the time to answer their questions. A client will value your insight and advice more than your popularity, and will appreciate your focus and attention.
3. Set the expectations
No one likes surprises, especially from an attorney. That is why it is critical to let the client know what to expect from you at the first meeting. If you have staff that will work on the case, let the client know their names and roles in the representation, and arrange a meeting with them if possible. If you don’t plan on being involved in the day-to-day management of the matter, let them know that as well. Give the client information about your fees, retainer obligations, billing policies, and let them know the preferred ways to communicate with you – phone, email, text, etc. – and how quickly you will respond to their inquiries. Also find out what is the best way for you to get in touch with them. With this exchange of information, the client knows what to expect and will be prepared to proceed accordingly.
Never make promises you might not be able to keep. Try to estimate and manage their expectations regarding the success of their case, reminding them that the final outcome will depend on a variety of factors, many of which are beyond your control. Never build up unrealistic expectations. As useful as the initial consultation can be, don’t make the mistake of relying too heavily upon it. As the case unfolds, you will likely find it necessary to reassess your client’s ever-changing emotions and expectations. This will put you on the offensive rather than the defensive and enable you to leverage what you learn from your client to improve the quality of your representation.
4. Describe the process
Your prospective client will appreciate knowing exactly what to expect — not only in terms of procedure but your office’s billing and staffing policies as well. Understanding how the legal process works will help them know what to expect in the way of forms, court appearances, etc., and knowing how their case will be worked will give them peace of mind to know the extent of your involvement in the case.
Since a major source of client anxiety is fear of the unknown and many clients have little or no experience with the legal system, you can enhance the relationship by patiently guiding them through the process. After you retain them as a client, continue to provide genuine reassurance and plenty of one-on-one attention to ensure that they thoroughly understand what is happening with their case. Clients who trust their lawyers are typically easier to work with than those who don’t, and it is important to earn and nurture their trust, particularly when their stress levels are elevated.
5. Prioritize convenience
One of the biggest hiccups of the client intake process is getting documents signed and returned. Asking your clients to print, sign, scan, and send documents back to you can be a burden, but the easier you can make it for them, the more likely they are to be happy with your services.
There are numerous ways that technology can dramatically streamline the client experience. For example, you can give clients the opportunity to book their own appointments with legal calendaring software. If clients can easily schedule and cancel meetings themselves, it will keep everyone on the same page and on time.
Instead of asking them to take multiple steps to get an important document back to you, allow them to sign electronically. Electronic signature for legal documents is an alternative and hassle-free way to sign documents. You can get the ball rolling much faster since clients can sign and send documents back to you from any device with an internet connection. Convenience is key.
6. Take a team approach
Let the client know that the attorney-client relationship is reciprocal. You will educate them on the law and guide them through the process, but they will be required to participate in the decision-making process. Encourage them to be honest and upfront with you so that you can help them make informed and wise choices. Clients typically appreciate having some control over their legal matters and their own destiny.
While critical to growth, the initial consult should not be viewed as a win-or-lose situation. Rather, it should be seen as an opportunity to tell a potential client what you can offer as their lawyer – and what they should expect as your client. Assuming that you’ll be able to function as a team, the likely outcome will be a successful relationship.
7. Talk specifics
While discussing knowledge of the law is critical to retaining the client, most do not schedule an appointment to be schooled in law but rather to receive an educated opinion about their legal matter. While it is necessary for a lawyer to spend time understanding the facts of the case, to save time, many attorneys have a prospective client bring a completed questionnaire to the initial meeting or have a staff member help the client complete this document.
Although it is more time-consuming, it is better if the lawyer completes this intake form with the client. This way, the lawyer will get a sense regarding issues that are most important to the client. When the lawyer has a full understanding of the relevant facts of the case, they will have the opportunity to ask questions to derive the most important information.
8. Be transparent about fees
No initial meeting can be concluded without a discussion of cost. While a lawyer is hard-pressed to estimate the total cost of the legal matter, billable rates, minimum amounts of time billed, and the frequency of billing are key issues that the prospective client needs to understand.
With legal billing software, your legal team can share invoices with clients in a way that’s easy for them and efficient for you. Whether it’s via a secure client portal, secure email, or by traditional mail, this technology will enable you to review bills and share client invoices via your preferred method of delivery in just a few clicks.
9. Answer their questions
After you understand the facts of the case and inform the prospective client of all possible outcomes, it is important that you allow sufficient time for them to ask questions. At the beginning of the consultation, you should let the client know that you will likely answer many of their questions during the course of the meeting, but time will be reserved at the end of the consultation for their questions. This will help put the client at ease so that they can listen intently to what they are being told, knowing that at the end of the meeting, they will have time to ask questions and voice concerns.
Questions You Should Ask
Here are some interview questions you should ask potential clients, and why asking them matters:
What brings you here today? Of the dozens of lawyers in your area, this potential client decided to contact you. From a marketing standpoint, you need to know how this client was attracted to your firm so that you can do more of this type of promotion. Their answer could also provide valuable insight into what is important to this person, where they go for answers, and how they approach problem solving.
Have you worked with an attorney before? If this is the first time the potential client has had a meeting with a lawyer, if you decide to offer representation, you’ll need to explain what will be expected of them, how similar matters usually progress, when decisions will need to be made, and what the likely timeframe might be.
Why did you decide to pursue this matter? This question will allow you to find out how serious the client is about bringing legal action and allow them to provide some valuable background that will help you prepare your legal arguments. Asking open-ended questions about their motivation for pursuing legal action will demonstrate your interest in their case and show them that you appreciate any information they can provide.
How can I help? Asking this question will demonstrate your willingness to put their priorities ahead of your own. Instead of going into a client meeting with your own agenda, learn to ask questions that will help you learn about your client’s problem, a problem that only a lawyer can help them solve. Find out what is keeping them up at night.
Tell me about your case. Instead of asking a series of standard questions about their potential legal matter, asking an open-ended question could very net you more valuable information. Pay close attention to what they reveal to you, and what you need to inquire further about – both can provide clues to this client’s priorities and what they might not want to be forthcoming about.
How would you like to handle communication with our office? A one-size-fits-all approach to communication with clients is usually not a good approach. Some will want constant updates, others will appreciate occasional emails or texts, while still others might want to speak to you in person or via phone. You should also determine the frequency of communication – daily, weekly, monthly, or as needed.
What concerns you most about your case? The answer to this question might reveal a lot about this potential client. If they say, “how much it is going to cost,” you’re likely dealing with someone who is going to want to know exactly how their money is being spent. If they say, “that I’ll lose the case,” you need to talk in depth about the strengths and weaknesses of the matter. If they express fear or intimidation, you’ll need to be prepared to explain the process step by step.
What is your desired outcome? Clients decide to hire attorneys for many different reasons – to recover monetary compensation, make a statement, decipher a contract, get a divorce – and it’s important to find out what your client is hoping to accomplish. If merely collecting damages isn’t enough, you have to decide whether what this potential client is after is something that you can actually provide.
Jan Hill authored this article.