New Client Inquiry on Line One
By Jim Calloway
It’s the beginning of a new year and most lawyers want to have new clients and new matters to start a new year. And the beginning of a new year is a good time to take stock and make business plans.
We hear and read a lot about lawyer marketing these days. Should lawyers use social media to market their practices? What is the correct marketing budget? Are Yellow Pages advertisements still a worthwhile investment?
But sometimes less attention is given to what happens when the law firm’s marketing efforts succeed and a prospective client contacts the law firm for more information about representation.
As noted by many others, the law firm receptionist is the “Manager of Law Firm First Impressions.” This is always true whether it is the well-trained and experienced receptionist with a long history with your firm or someone who is “covering the phones” temporarily while the primary receptionist is absent. So perhaps your firm needs to focus on appropriate training for those who only answer the phone part-time or rarely. Many firms are utilizing virtual receptionist services like Ruby Receptionists, an endorsed OBA member benefit. This may be on a full-time basis or just for some hours of coverage.
Much of a telephone receptionist’s duties involve taking telephone calls from existing clients or other lawyers and properly routing the calls or taking messages. If they do not handle these duties well, you will likely hear about it from a client at some point.
But they also handle that extremely important call — the inquiry from a potential new client — and if that is not handled well, you may never hear anything at all. The potential client may simply move on to the next law firm. That is bad for the law firm and could represent a waste of marketing efforts and expenses. Even worse, it could mean that one of your treasured referral sources hears back from that potential client that they were not treated well or that you were too busy to talk to them. That could result in a referral source drying up without you ever understanding why this happened.
Readers are likely familiar with the late time management guru Stephen Covey and his time management matrix. He assigned four quadrants for determining what tasks are priorities based on their urgency and importance. So quadrant one contained matters that were both urgent and important, while quadrant four included those matters that were both not urgent and not important.
As every experienced lawyer understands, inquiries from new potential clients are quadrant one matters — both urgent and important. It is important for your law practice that you continue to develop new clients with new matters to handle. But it is urgent that the inquiry be handled as promptly as possible because the potential client will probably continue to look for a lawyer while waiting for your return call. Most lawyers who represented individual consumer clients have had the experience of returning an inquiry call within the hour only to find that the person has already talked to and scheduled a meeting with another lawyer and no longer wishes to discuss the legal problem with you.
I should note that this column was inspired by North Carolina lawyer Lee Rosen’s post about his attempts to hire a lawyer, “I Needed a Lawyer. Getting One Is Way Harder Than You’d Imagine.” Read Lee’s post as a companion piece.
So, what are your law firm’s policies and procedures about inquiries from new clients, and more importantly, what messages do you convey and what training is done to make sure things are handled accordingly? Left to their own devices, the receptionist may treat these calls like the dozens of other calls received. The potential client may then end up leaving a message on voice mail which is returned after the caller has hired that other lawyer or given up entirely on seeking assistance.
This is where the Covey analysis of urgency is significant and the receptionist should be trained to understand the urgency. Noting that you are on the phone and asking the caller if they want to leave a message or be transferred to voice mail may not be the optimal solution. One would never want to prioritize potential new clients over existing clients. But it is a fact that the existing client who receives their return call in less than an hour is still receiving good service. But the new caller on the phone needs to talk to someone now.
There is no “one size fits all” solution for this. Much depends on the number of lawyers, the available staff and the type of practice. The practitioner who limits his or her practice to antitrust defense is probably not going to lose a new client if a message is taken and a call returned within an hour or so. Likely the serious caller is another lawyer working for a corporate client who is seeking that particular lawyer’s expertise. But the DUI defense firm or family law firm may have callers who have obtained a list of lawyer’s phone numbers and are going down the list calling and saying “No, thanks. No message” if they cannot talk to someone now. So the receptionist’s job is to keep them on the phone very briefly and find someone for them to talk to about their legal problem.
So maybe this column will give you some ideas for convening a meeting among the partners to agree on the firm policy and getting that policy in writing. Then the firm can have a training lunch to outline the procedures followed up by regular firm training sessions to fine tune and improve the procedures.
Here is a quick agenda for the meeting.
1) Who gets the new client inquiry? Assume all is quiet, everyone is in the office is working at their desks and no one is on the phone when the new potential client calls. Who gets that call? Does the named partner get first refusal on every call? Does the receptionist keep a rotation list so the calls are divided among all of the lawyers? Does only one lawyer in the office handle bankruptcy inquiries? Does that lawyer who is renting an office from the firm ever get in on the rotation or is he only receiving the inquiries on his separate phone line?
This sounds like a simple administrative matter, but this can generate a huge controversy, especially where a law firm’s practice areas may range from misdemeanor defense to wrongful death lawsuits or where the origination of a new matter is a significant factor in lawyer compensation. But this is a matter that must be handled professionally and fairly—unless you want the real office policy to be that the best cases go to the lawyer who the receptionist likes best.
2) What happens when the lawyer who is supposed to receive the new client inquiry is on the phone? Again, this depends on many factors, including the law firm culture. For some, it may be that the receptionist has to send someone down the hall to the lawyer’s office with a sign saying “new client inquiry on line one” and wait for instructions. For others, it may be that it goes to the next attorney in the rotation.
3) Should lawyers be handling these intake initial inquiries at all? We all know how hard it is to get work done today with a number of distractions and certainly having a policy that the lawyer will drop everything every time a stranger calls may not be the best solution for productivity. Lee Rosen mentioned in his blog post that he has two bright and enthusiastic young people handling all of these initial inquiries until they burn out after about a year. While there are likely downsides to that approach, it certainly allows for in-depth expertise and training even if the more traditional lawyers may become quite uncomfortable when they realize that they have now established a position that would be known in other industries as “sales associate.”
4) How do we respond to questions? There should certainly be written guidance for everyone in the law firm (at least the smaller law firm) on this topic because anyone might pick up a ringing call when the receptionist is busy. There should be accurate, but standard, answers to questions like “how much does X cost?” And, because you cannot anticipate every possible off-the-wall question, a little training in legal ethics is required. Even a simple question like “Are your lawyers good lawyers?” or “Will bankruptcy get rid of my debts?” has significant legal ethics implications if handled by an untrained staff person. Your staff person should know not to guess or to veer from approved language that is given in the training. They should be trained to be positive and helpful, e.g. “I understand that your hearing is set for Friday. How would you like to visit with a lawyer first thing in the morning?”
One surprising thing about doing this type of policy establishment, documentation and review is that some of your more experienced staff may learn something or they may have better information and ideas than the lawyers since they have more experience handling new client inquiries.
Once you have established your protocols for handling new client inquiries over the telephone, you are not yet finished with this topic, because now you need to institute a similar process for email inquiries, web page inquires or social media inquiries.
My opinion is that most law firms would be best served for only one email address to be used as the “contact us” address and that that email account should be checked by a staff person rather than one of the lawyers. Many law firms use a website form completion tool rather than posting the actual email address. This is thought to cut down on spam caused by the web crawlers that harvest email addresses from sites. Email inquiries are no less urgent than phone calls and we all struggle with keeping up with our inboxes, so assigning the monitoring of this account to staff is usually the best plan. Generally the staff person’s responsibilities would be limited to either scheduling an appointment or arranging for a lawyer to call or email in response.
A final step after the new client inquiry is completed is documentation of the conversation. Even a brief discussion in general terms implicates client confidentiality and conflict of interest concerns. Therefore it becomes critically important to document who the lawyer talked with, who any opposing party might be and generally what was said. This documentation should be available to everyone in the firm for future conflict checking.
Marketing and client development is an ongoing part of the business of law practice. Some law firms have large marketing budgets while others have very small marketing budgets and depend mainly on referrals. Whatever your law firm’s marketing methods are, everyone wants to take the time to institute systems to make sure that once a potential client contacts your office, their inquiry is handled professionally and promptly. Many of these potential clients will go on to become clients of the firm. The better the first impression that you leave with them, the better it is for your ongoing attorney-client relationship.
Mr. Calloway is OBA Management Assistance Program Director. Need a quick answer to a tech problem or help solving a management dilemma? Contact him at 405-416-7008, 1-800-522-8065 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- January 17, 2015 -- Vol. 86, No. 2