The Inital Consultation

Purposes of the Initial Consultation.
Though there are  numerous activities which occur during an initial consultation, such as fact-gathering, explaining the law, and rendering advice, there are really just two principal purposes:

 
 
The twin purposes of the initial consultation are:
1.To persuade qualified prospective clients that it is in their best interest to retain you rather than your competitor; and
2.To lay the foundation for a successful relationship once the prospect  retains your firm and becomes an actual client.
 
Given these objectives, successful initial consultations are those that result in a greater number of retainers and fewer attorney-client controversies after the relationship springs into being.
 
In marketing terms, the initial consultation represents an opportunity to differentiate yourself from your competitors by demonstrating that you will deliver quality service in a timely and cost-effective manner.  One very effective way to do this is by showcasing your practice team and your technology.  Because this approach requires that you explain in fair detail how you will handle the prospective client's case before he or she actually becomes a client, it also serves the salutary purpose of establishing a firm foundation for attorney-client harmony.  
 
Issues To Address.
In addition to the fact-gathering, analysis, and advice which are at the center of the consultation, there are several other issues that are probably on the prospect's mind which you should address.
 
Fees and Costs.
This issue is usually uppermost in the mind of every prospective client who sits across your desk.  Indeed, a comprehensive and candid discussion of fees is an essential condition precedent to an informed decision to retain.  Whether you charge an hourly rate or a flat fee, the prospective client must be clearly apprised of the basis of your compensation.  In some states, there are formal requirements for the content of retainer agreements which mandate certain minimal content.  Whatever retainer agreement you use, however, its salient points should be discussed in appropriate detail before presenting the document to the client.  If you've done your job during the consultation, the client will discover no surprises in the retainer agreement. (And if the agreement is as comprehensive, detailed and clear as it should be, there will be no surprises awaiting the client within the billing process).
 
You should also remember that the client of the 90s is concerned not only with the basis for your fee but also with the overall cost of his or her divorce.  Whether or not the prospective client raises the issue, you can be sure it is lurking somewhere in his or her list of concerns and anxieties.  Accordingly, you should engage in a frank and positive discussion of the cost issue and use it as a selling point for the retention of your firm.  After all, you've devoted a fair measure of energy and resources to create a speedy and cost-effective delivery system so you have no reason to be bashful about it.
 
Explain that cost-effectiveness is important to both the client and to your firm.  Some statement along the following lines should make the point.
 
"I know that you are concerned about the overall cost of your case.  Most clients are.  So are we.  We have enough clients and work that it is essential that we be cost-effective and not spend any more time on a given task or activity than is necessary to meet the standard of excellence and quality for which our firm is noted."
"We are quite conscious of the legitimate concern that all clients have with respect to legal costs.  Although many of the variables which affect the cost of a case are largely outside of our control, such as the actions of your spouse or your spouse's attorney, the judge assigned to the case and how expeditiously he or she moves the calendar, we are committed to doing all that we can with respect to those things which we can control to keep your cost as low as possible consistent with rendering quality service.  That's why we have carefully constructed a team of highly trained professionals to move your case to a successful conclusion and why we employ the most powerful technologies available to ensure prompt quality service."
 
Such statements do more than drive home the point that you are aware of the cost concerns of your clients.  They lead naturally to an explanation of the team approach which you employ and, later, to a demonstration of the technology which enhances your efficiency.
 
"Selling" The Team Approach
Your prospective client is not intrinsically interested in how you do anything.  They are acutely interested, however, in how your methods benefit them.  Therefore, it is essential that you explain how the client benefits from the team approach which you employ.  There are multiple benefits to discuss:.
 
Cost-Savings.
The client will reap substantial savings as a result of your delegation and assignment of tasks to team members handling various aspects of the case.  First, your paralegal's time is billed at a significantly lower hourly rate.  Additionally, he or she can usually perform delegated tasks in fewer hours than it would take you to do so because of the efficiency gained by task specialization.  If the paralegal prepares four financial statements everyday, he or she likely does it more efficiently than an attorney who prepares them only occasionally.  The prospective client doesn't appreciate these advantages unless you state them.  So, for example, it is helpful to indicate expressly, "Not only will our paralegal prepare your Statement of Net Worth at a lower hourly rate, she will do it in less time than it would take me to do it, because she does them all the time and, as a result, is a specialist in preparing them.  Hence, she can do them faster."
 
Higher Quality.
The client also receives higher quality of service as a result of the team approach, again because of the advantages of specialization.  Thus, the above statement may be followed with:
 
"Our paralegal also will do a better job of it than I would because, again, she works with these forms every day - and one of the consequences of such specialization is enhanced quality."
 
Better Communication.
Because attorneys are frequently in court, while most paralegals spend little time out of the office, the latter is generally more available to receive and return client phone calls. This enables you to establish a "same-day" or "24-hour" return call policy, which you can explain to prospective client with positive effect.
"I'm often in court or in conference, and not able to take your call or return it right away.  But I'm exceedingly conscious of how important your case is to you, as it is to us, and we always want to be as responsive as possible to you and all of our clients.  That's another advantage of our team approach.  Our paralegals will receive and return your calls in the first instance.  Many times, they will have a ready answer for you because they are assigned to your case and stay on top of all day-to-day details.  Other times, they will be able to catch me between court appearances or conferences, get the answer you need, and then get back to you far more promptly than I would be able to do.  Other times, they will communicate the substance of your question or problem to me so that I can look into it and get back to you."
 
A Caveat.
Be sure to explain to the prospective client that you carefully supervisory all work which is done on his or her case, as well as the system of checks, balances, and tracking systems which are in place to ensure that quality is maintained at all times.  The prospective client may harbor some concern about parts of their case being handled by nonlawyers and you need to allay these concerns even if they're not articulated by the client.  That's why you must emphasize that you are always in charge of and on top of his or her case.
 
Introducing Your Team.
If not during the consultation, immediately after retainer agreement is signed, you should introduce the team member, e.g. a paralegal, who will take the client through the next step of the intake process.  It is helpful to recap the case for the paralegal, in the client's presence, the essence of the client's case, the steps which need to be taken, and the immediate and long-term objectives of the client.  This procedure serves a number of important purposes.  It makes for a smooth transition.  It reinforces in the client's mind that your firm works as a team because he or she actually sees you working as a team with your paralegal.  The client will not need to worry that you neglected to tell the paralegal about the important aspects of the case, because these were relayed in the client's presence.  It makes it easier for the paralegal to carry out the next steps because the client, having actually heard you direct those steps, is more likely to cooperate.  In essence, this process transfers the attorney's credibility to the paralegal.
 
"Selling" The Technology Advantage.
As was true with respect to your team method, most prospective clients care little what fancy techno-toys you may have.  But they are extremely interested in how your technology may reduce their costs or allow you to serve them better or faster.  Thus, you must focus on the benefits which flow to the client from the advanced technology you will use in handling his or her case.
 
Give prospective clients a tour of your offices, including an overview of your technology. Show them the word processing center, the network file server, explain the advantages of your E-Mail system.  Have someone send you an E-Mail message so the prospective client sees how rapidly it will communicate important issues about their case from one member of the practice team to the other.  You should demonstrate how your automatic diary/docket control system ensures that you will not miss important deadlines or calendar dates affecting the client's case.
 
Of course, actions speak more persuasively than words, so you might wish to generate a couple of impressive documents through your document assembly system during the initial consultation.  This can be a powerful marketing technique.  One of the best  examples of this technique was related by a subscriber to the TIPS-MatMasterTM system.  During the course of an initial consultation, having entered basic client data into the system’s intake sheet as they talked, he quickly printed out a summons and complaint, containing the prospect’s specific information.  Handing it across the desk, he said, “If you retain me, this will go out for service this afternoon.”  According to the attorney, the client couldn’t write the retainer check fast enough, because none of the other three lawyers he had interviewed with had demonstrated such efficiency.
Discuss Billing Up-Front To Solidify the Attorney/Client Relationship.
 
Explain the importance of a solid, harmonious attorney-client relationship and the difficulty that high costs, misunderstood charges, or unpaid bills pose to both attorney and client.  To diminish the likelihood of legitimate misunderstanding, which is the most frequent source of client conflict, explain your billing system.  Go over a sample billing statement with the prospective client, and review its format point by point:
 
* description of services rendered
* date service rendered
* time expended/charged (e.g. 2/10's of an hour)
* person who performed service (i.e. which member of the practice team)
* application of hourly rate of team member and resulting $ charge for that service
 
If you require your client's to sign and return a copy of each monthly billing statement to indicate that they agree with each of the charges, explain how that procedure benefits both attorney and client by avoiding needless misunderstandings that can undermine the relationship.
 
Another Marketing Hint:  
Even your billing statement represents a potential marketing tool. Most attorneys do many things for clients for which they do not charge. Good client relations can be generated by referencing these "no-charge" items on the client's billing statement.  So, for example, if you have sent the client a  copy of a court decision or statutory revision,  you should list the service on your bill, even if you are not going to charge the client for it.  The monthly billing statement provides you an opportunity to remind the client that you rendered that service without charge.  Given the inherent strains in the attorney-client relationship in matrimonial cases, such opportunities to generate some goodwill should not be ignored.
 
Dealing with Client Expectations
Perhaps the single most important aspect of the initial consultation in terms of establishing the foundation for successful future relationship is addressing client expectations.  This is a two-way concept.  You need to find out what the client expects in terms of results, speed, cost-effectiveness, and attorney responsiveness.  You must weigh against these client expectations what you reasonably expect you can deliver.  Then your task is to reconcile one with the other by trying to bring the expectations of the prospective client into line with reality.  You must recognize that your efforts to channel and control client expectations frequently compete with external pressures brought to bear by the client’s family and friends, as well as other meddlers often operating in the guise of “support” groups.  Such third parties often  inflate  the client's expectations to fantasy levels at the same time you are trying to bring them into the realm of reality.  If you are unable to get the prospect to address the issues in a realistic way, you are better off declining the case.  Accepting a case where the chasm of reality is unbridgeable is one of the worst decisions an attorney can make.  The attorney-client relationship is doomed to failure, a failure which may well be punctuated with a professional grievance or malpractice suit.
 
Conclusion
In the final analysis, what often distinguishes the financially successful practitioner from the unsuccessful is the quantity and quality of thought which is put into the marketing effort.  The marketing potential of everything you do or don't do should be assessed and reassessed continuously.  The practice systems, both management and technological, which you put in place to improve the quality, speed and cost-effectiveness of client  service lies  at the core of any well conceived marketing plan.  Properly adapted and implemented., the principles, procedures and techniques delineated above will deliver maximum marketing benefits and are certain to improve the profitability of your practice.

About the Author

TMTIPPINS's picture
Matlaw

Timothy M. Tippins, Esq. is an adjunct professor at Albany Law School and serves on the faculty of the American Academy of Forensic Psychology and on the Affiliate Postdoctoral Forensic Faculty at St. John’s University. He has also served as an Adjunct Professor of Forensic Psychology at Siena College. He is a private practitioner who has engaged in matrimonial and family law practice since 1975 and devotes his practice exclusively to serving as trial counsel and consultant to other family law practitioners on a nationwide basis, with special emphasis on the presentation and cross-examination of expert mental health testimony. Tippins has served in all major professional leadership positions in the New York family law community, including President of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers - New York Chapter, Chair of the NYSBA Family Law Section, and Chair of the NYSBA Task Force on Family Law. Tippins is a regular feature columnist for the New York Law Journal and is the author of the multi-volume treatise New York Matrimonial Law & Practice (West Publishing). E-mail: tmtippins [at] matlaw [dot] com