Occasionally a lawyer will ask if there really is a need to use a standardized form during the intake process. As is often the case with such questions, the answer is “it depends.” A basic intake form that is general in nature may do little to improve your intake process. On the other hand, the use of well thought out detailed intake forms specifically designed for use in your firm’s various practice areas can be quite useful. Not only do they help streamline the process, but they can ensure that important information about and from prospective clients is never inadvertently overlooked. In fact, for that reason alone, I would encourage their use even when taking on new matters for existing clients.
Regardless of the practice specific emphasis of your various intake forms, all should cover the basics to include detailed contact information and the names of adverse and related parties. Putting the obligation to look for conflicts aside, a client intake form can be an effective client screening tool. If someone is unable or hesitant to provide detailed contact information or isn’t willing or able to provide the names of all involved parties, there is a reason why. At a minimum, remaining in contact with such a client may prove challenging down the road. As an aside, I can assure you that we have paid claims on matters where deadlines have passed for this very reason.
The general section of every intake form can also serve as the place to document that you have thoroughly discussed the fee arrangement with your prospective client and that they have agreed to the proffered terms. My purpose in suggesting this is to encourage you to make certain the prospective client can actually afford your services. That said, please note that there is a huge difference between sharing what your hourly rate is and providing an initial realistic estimate as to what the entire fee could end up being.
To get the most value out of intake forms, however, you do need to move beyond these basics. I prefer the checklist driven approach. Create a detailed list of questions for each area of practice and have all prospective clients fill out the appropriate form prior to their initial meeting. If you practice estate planning, do small business formations, and pick up the occasional family law matter, the information you will need from a prospective client will differ depending upon what their legal need is. For example, in estate planning and family law matters you would need an accurate list of assets owned along with a current valuation; in a domestic matter you would want to know how long the parties have been married, number of children, work information, social security information and the like; with a small business formation you would want to know the nature of the business, who is contributing what, and the terms of any agreement between the parties.
The point here is not to set forth every question that should be asked in a more detailed intake form. It is simply to demonstrate the value of developing a thorough intake checklist that can be provided to the client in advance of their first meeting because these forms allow you to gather all specific the information you will need for the particular type of representation. Even better, this intake checklist approach can serve as one more screening tool. Prospective clients who are not serious about hiring an attorney will balk at taking the time to complete the form. Others will fail to complete the form in its entirety and they are telling you something as well. For example, perhaps they are hoping to hide an asset or it could be as simple as the client isn’t understanding all that is going on. Regardless, you will have a better idea as to how to proceed.
Intake forms are also risk management tools in that they serve as documentation of the information the client provided. It is not uncommon for a client to fail to disclose assets relevant to an estate plan, misspell a name, or provide other incorrect information. To avoid this kind of problem, thoroughly review the intake form with every client and have them sign or initial that the information provided is complete and accurate. These two steps can go a long way in helping to protect you should something prove incorrect or inaccurate later on. That said, while there will be times when an error will lie squarely on the client’s shoulders, you are well advised to always check the information provided during intake against other sources of information received in an effort to catch any errors.
Finally, a well thought out intake form can help you identify other legal services the client may need. For example, intellectual property or trade mark issues may be in play when someone is coming to you for help in setting up a business. If you can provide additional services presently or at a later date, all the better for you. If you can’t, the client may appreciate an explanation of the additional legal needs they have and you now have the opportunity to make a good referral to another lawyer.
One side note here. Don’t rush into this and place a detailed intake form on your firm’s web site in an effort to make the process as convenient as possible for any and all comers. I would encourage you to consider limiting the amount of information that a prospective client can provide in such settings. In most jurisdictions, Rule 1.18 creates certain duties of confidentiality and a conflict may be created by the information received even if you decide not to represent the prospective client. While disclaimers on a web site can help control this risk (a click through agreement is best), it is still wise to be careful about the amount of information you allow just about anyone to submit.