First impressions are forever. Whether you are Carmela Soprano, Tony Soprano or Average Joe calling, the person who takes the call must make an impression as well as get an impression of the potential client.
Often the first person to whom a potential client speaks is not an attorney. When prospective clients realize this, needless to say, some of them are not happy. They have a problem and they want to talk to a lawyer! However, they must realize that talking to the intake person saves them time (and, ultimately, money).
It is important to gain their confidence to determine their story. You must ask the right questions to find out if your firm and the potential client are a fit. You do not get a second chance to make a first impression and neither do they. Maintain a balance of professionalism and accessibility. The initial conversation with a potential client is not only a first impression but a lasting one.
So what story would Carmela have told when she first called your law firm? Typically, the initial questions are fairly easy: date of marriage, children, husband’s name and employment. It would be most important to get her husband’s name to determine if he had previously called the office (let us assume he had not). Surely Carmela would have hesitated when asked for employment information. Perhaps she would have said that she once tried to work herself after Tony had lent her money to get involved in a real estate deal that failed. She might have quietly said that her husband was in "waste management". A good intake person might get her to reveal that she knows Tony’s money comes from illegal gains, but provides a very comfortable lifestyle – to let it be known that she feels guilty for allowing her family to be in such a position, but she has accepted it for what it is.
This is the aim of the second set of questions – not as easy as the first set - to determine why Carmela called and whether her case is a good fit for the firm. Hopefully, she would feel comfortable with the rapport the intake person created. Carmela could say now that her marriage is a very complicated one. While they have had their share of fights, there have also been many tender moments. Her husband is a wonderful father to their two children. Even though she lives in a beautiful home and he buys her expensive gifts, this is now becoming a burden on her. If the intake person has gained her confidence, this set of questions will allow Carmella to say that Tony's affairs have finally had an impact on their marriage and that she has asked him to leave.
At this point in the conversation, the intake person must assess what has been said. Is the potential client telling everything truthfully? Any vague or evasive answers to the questions should be an instant red flag. Remember, when you get potential clients to tell their stories, they are making the same first impression on you that they eventually will make on the judge or the jury.
What about Tony? How would his call to a law office have gone? This call would definitely have been more difficult for the intake person to manage. First off, Tony has already made a first impression. He is featured regularly on the news. Tony is the Mafia boss. One has the impression that he steals, lies, and whacks people. And that impression would make one wonder just how credible is someone in that line of work? Furthermore, on a very pragmatic note, intake would have to determine if this potential client could afford the firm’s services. How would you go about finding out (without asking outright) how Mafia bosses get paid? Is the work steady enough to afford the billing rates on a monthly basis?
While these ponderings are all based on a television show, they demonstrate what a firm’s intake person must do every time potential clients call. Whether it is Carmela or Tony, when they call, they need to feel comfortable with the intake person as a professional to see if the firm might fit their objectives. Creating a level of comfort and asking the key questions to determine if the case is right for your law firm will allow potential clients to talk frankly about themselves. In their responses, you are listening intently, forming that first impression in your mind.
So the next time the telephone rings, think of first impressions and be sure to make an incredible one and hope the potential client does the same.
Bada bing. Bada boom.
Beth Semilof is a member of the administration team at McManis Faulkner. She is responsible for handling the firm’s client intake as well as playing a pivotal role in coordinating the firm’s client development efforts.