In my previous life — that is, the one of an insurance defense paralegal — it was rare to conduct any type of initial client intake in a case. During litigation of the case, of course, the legal team would meet with the insured and/or company representative to review facts, prepare for depositions, respond to discovery, etc. However, it was not until my recent change in position that I came to appreciate how significant the initial client intake is. The information obtained during the initial interview, as well as establishing an open line of communication between the firm and prospective client, can simplify and streamline the handling of a case.
While the initial interview may begin with an attorney, a paralegal or case manager is often charged with the task of meeting with a prospective client to gather personal information and facts. Depending upon the firm, there are variations of client intake forms and procedures. Many firms have instituted best practices in order to guide the members of the legal team on the completion of client intake forms. A paralegal should be familiar with the in-house procedures and any specialized forms prior to undertaking a client interview. If no forms or procedures have yet to be adopted by the firm, a paralegal may wish to meet with the managing partner to assist in drafting procedures. The use of forms and procedures by the legal team will ensure thoroughness and consistency during client intake meetings.
Preparation is the key to success. The legal team should be adequately prepared prior to the client intake, including organizing any file materials and being familiar with the general facts and circumstances of the potential case. If a paralegal is involved in the initial client intake, he or she should identify any issues, develop a checklist and prepare an outline of questions to be reviewed with the assigned attorney prior to meeting with the client. A paralegal should have copies of all applicable documentation prepared for review and signature by the client, including any approved fee agreements, authorizations and affidavits. This will result in a time savings during the meeting and will also put the client's mind at ease in knowing that the legal team is adequately prepared to handle the case.
The goal of the client interview is to gather personal information and facts in order for the firm to determine potential representation. Of equal importance is the aspect of developing a relationship with the client early on. The client has entrusted the firm with his or her legal problem. The client will, most likely, be in direct contact with a paralegal throughout the course of the litigation. It is important to develop a rapport with the client at the time of the initial meeting in order to gain a level of trust, respect and confidence. A paralegal should be mindful that the client has been through a traumatic experience. Thus, listening to a prospective client is very important. The client may become emotional during the interview. It is crucial for a paralegal to be sensitive to the client's emotions while keeping the client focused and maintaining control of the meeting.
The preliminary client interview is similar to a puzzle. Initially, there are numerous pieces scattered around. A paralegal is instrumental in putting the pieces together with the assistance of the client in order to see the complete picture. While the basic information should be obtained from the prospective client at the outset of a case (such as contact information, date of accident, etc.), a paralegal should also identify other often overlooked items that will serve to assist the legal team throughout the case. These items may include:
• Email address.
• Health insurance coverage.
• Spouse/partner name.
• Cellphone number/provider.
• Emergency contact.
• Prior attorneys and lawsuits.
• Source of referral.
A paralegal should also question the client as to whether any applicable paperwork is available. Some potential clients have bags of unorganized paperwork while others have itemized billing and folders. Some prospective clients retain every piece of paper while others are not even sure of location or date of the incident. The availability of documents in aiding the legal team at the outset of the case should not be discounted. A paralegal should never say "we probably don't need that" and merely return papers to a client. Every client is unique and it is essential not to become preoccupied with the client's particular system of retaining documents. Instead, a paralegal should record copious notes during the client intake and scan or photocopy all documentation for review and organization. All pertinent information can be extracted after the interview.
One aspect a paralegal should always be cognizant of during the client intake is the role of ethics. A paralegal should immediately disclose his or her position and role in the case to the prospective client. The need to comply with ethics, including confidentiality, cannot be overstated. A paralegal should refrain from providing legal advice to the client with respect to questions such as, "Well, was it my fault?" or, "How much is my case worth?" Instead, these questions should be directed to an attorney for response following analysis and evaluation of the case. It is imperative for paralegals to maintain the highest standard of ethics at all times, but especially during client intakes. A paralegal should always seek guidance from an attorney whenever there is any doubt or the issue involves a legal question.
Once the initial client intake has been completed, that certainly is not the end of the process. A paralegal should prepare a summary of the meeting and record any missing items or issues to follow up on with the prospective client (if signed). The documents obtained during the meeting should be organized and reviewed by the assigned attorney. Any updated information and significant dates should be entered into the firm's case management system (whether paper or electronic) and logged on the attorney calendar (i.e., relevant statute date). Also, a paralegal should remember the importance of prompt follow-up. If the client is signed by the firm at the time of the interview, a paralegal should not let weeks lapse without additional client contact. Instead, maintain an open line of communication between the firm and the client, especially early on in the case when the client may have questions.
The client intake is a detailed process involving the ability of a paralegal to balance gathering basic facts and assembling the puzzle while establishing a relationship with a prospective client at the outset. The information obtained during the client intake will serve as a reference for the other members of the legal team with respect to developing a litigation strategy. The bond initially formed with the client will certainly carry throughout the case. This mutual trust will likely result in better cooperation from the client in attending appointments and obtaining timely updates. These measures will ultimately result in the smooth handling of the case by the legal team during all stages of litigation.
Christine M. Flynn is a paralegal with Haggerty, Goldberg, Schleifer & Kupersmith. She is the immediate past president of The Philadelphia Association of Paralegals, currently serving as the 40th anniversary and member services chair, as well as board adviser. Flynn also serves as the ethics chair and American Bar Association liaison pro bono co-coordinator for the National Federation of Paralegal Associations.