Lawyers — as a rule — hate wasting time on administrative work. That’s true whether that’s their time or if they’re paying someone else to push the paperwork.
I distinctly remember the first law firm I worked at after law school. Our intake department would handle the incoming calls and all of the paperwork that was required to get someone signed up. A potential client, after coming in for a consultation, would be required to sign a paper retainer agreement, and pay a retainer at that time. They were typically given paper intake forms to take home, especially on estate planning cases, which would make their way back to the law firm eventually to be entered into computers by administrative staff. In total, the onboarding process would take two or three people days, if not weeks, to complete.
That is not a knock on the firm — they were an incredibly professional mid-sized firm with more than a dozen attorneys and were well staffed with dozens of people to support those attorneys’ workload.
Most small firms don’t have that kind of budget or manpower. If they want to scale up their business, they can’t go on a hiring spree. Instead, their quickest route to expanding their profits or bringing on more cases is to become more efficient.
The lowest hanging fruit for most law firms in terms of manpower and efficiency is to attack your intake process. Adopting the right tools to automate as much of that process as possible, and to harvest the data you need from the clients themselves (rather than paper forms and more support staff), will drastically reduce your overhead and give your clients an amazing first impression as to the efficiency of your firm overall.
Picture this: a potential client calls or emails for a consult. You schedule that consult (or use a calendar scheduler, like Calendly, to streamline the task), to meet either over the phone or in person. You email the potential client an intake form before the meeting. After the meeting, both sides decide to move forward. You tap a button and an auto generated retainer agreement is sent to the client for electronic signature, as well as an invoice. An hour later, the client has signed and paid from her smartphone on her lunch break. With a few more clicks, you automatically generate a rough draft of the documents you need to initiate her case.
Where are those documents stored? A secure client portal, where you can also exchange messages with the client, assign tasks, or allow them to schedule an appointment.
Does she have multiple matters? Is she a returning client with new issues? Click over a new form or two to her to get the data you need to start working on the paperwork in seconds. New matter intake should take minutes, not hours or *shudders* days.
That is the strength of electronic intake tools. Did you see any support staff in that scenario? They might have taken the call or scheduled a consultation, but that’s about it. Your ability to take on new cases is now limited only by your own time, not by administrative overhead.
How do you reach this brave new world of minimal data entry and all-but-automatic intake? Let’s turn to the tools. But first, let’s quickly go over the minimum features needed in such a tool.
The most important feature you need is simple forms. If you want to replace the world of paper forms and manual data entry, it all starts with the form. Whether it is a contact form on your website, a matter intake form for collecting substantive data for a case, or an inquiry form on an advertisement, you are going to need just that — forms.
Of course, forms are only as helpful as their ability to make that data work for you. A digital form is no different from a paper form if you still have to copy and paste the data manually or retype it. So your form solution must have a type of connectivity or integration with your other requisite features. This might be a Zapier integration, or the forms might live inside another product containing your requisite features.
Which ‘requisite features’ are we referring to? Because we lawyers live for paperwork you’ll want to implement document automation tools, to ensure your client intake system works efficiently. All that data that came from client forms should double as the building blocks of your actual legal documents, your retainer agreement, etc.
By reusing the information received from intake forms, you’ll be saving time that would otherwise be spent manually entering information collected in the client intake process — saving an untold amount of hours in a given month, or year.
Electronic signatures are another notable feature. The ability to take the documents you just drafted, send them over to a client, and get a signature back in seconds is an absolute game-changer. Fortunately, it’s also a cheap commodity at this point — the feature is available as a part of PDF software, CRM and marketing software, law practice management platforms, and even document automation software. So, if your chosen media does not have this, know that it is not expensive or tricky to replicate the functionality elsewhere.
Lastly, you need to think about scheduling: nobody likes the “give me three times that might work for you, and I’ll get back to you about whether those work for me” dance. And there might be no more giant waste of human resources than to hire someone solely to have them answer the phone and click through your calendar. So keep an eye out for a tool with a self-scheduling feature integrated, or find a self-scheduler that plays nicely with your core tools.
One last aside on tools: You may have noticed the hedging on whether these killer features should be part of one platform or piecemeal and integrated from multiple sources. There are arguments on both sides of that debate — there are platforms that have all of these features, but each feature is half-baked and causes more problems than it solves, and there are a half-dozen distinct tools that you can patch together through integrations, APIs, and duct tape. Your best bet is to find a tool that checks some of these boxes exceptionally well and fills in the gaps as needed.
Rally, for example, has solid forms, document automation, a client portal, and more. But you may want to tie into Quickbooks or a practice management platform that handles hourly timekeeping and billing. If so, you can fill in that 'gap' with a connection through Zapier.
This platform was almost revolutionary when it came out. There was only one well-known legal CRM (Lexicata, now known as Clio Grow). And it hadn’t exactly set the world on fire: for those of us who fiend over automation, LM was groundbreaking. Since then, the pace of development has been unsteady, with only a few minor feature tweaks for years before announcing a client portal earlier this month. Truth be told, this platform is a collection of solid features bundled up into a platform that can be, at times, overwhelming, if the user comments on social media are to be believed. You can do everything you need to do regarding intake with this platform – but you will feel the rough edges and the learning curve is steep for most people, especially for solos trying to juggle a law practice with building out new systems for their firm.
The Coke to Lawmatics’ Pepsi is Clio Grow (formerly known as Lexicata). If you are already a Clio Manage user, the integration between the company’s two platforms is seamless, and you’ll have a lot less trouble than trying to pull in outside tools. But that doesn’t mean it’s perfect - you do have to own both tools to pull off even the basics here, such as a self-scheduling tool and generating documents, such as a retainer agreement. Even then, it requires a confusingly complex workaround borne of the two platforms originating in different companies and later being brought under one roof.
Hubspot is a massive player in the marketing automation, CRM, and intake space. In reality, it’s not a dedicated intake platform, nor is it specific to the legal industry. Instead, they offer a menu of solutions that allow you to pick the features you need to build out an intake system. Being a non-lawyer platform, it is far more developed and features robust, but it also requires some significant customization to fit the peculiarities of law practice. Also, remember that sending data from a non-legal platform to your favourite practice management software or document automation platform may require some extra effort or a Zapier setup.
Captorra deserves mention as arguably the largest and oldest intake platform. Legaltech mega company 'Internet Brands Martindale Nolo Avvo' owns it. (No, that’s not their official name, but there have been so many mergers and acquisitions there, nobody can keep it straight.) It’s pricey (per Mockingbird’s survey, over $200/user/mo), and it is primarily targeted at larger personal injury and mass tort firms.
Forms? Done. Comprehensive document automation? Absolutely. Scheduling and payment tools? You got it. Instead of focusing on a particular feature, Rally has focused on the entire experience for the lawyer and her clients — forms, retainer agreements, and electronic signatures; everything you need from the beginning to the end of the intake process is available under one platform. And the most critical feature for lawyers — producing documents — is at the heart of Rally’s platform, allowing you to generate complex documents in seconds or even set up a self-service platform for your clients.
As a bonus, Rally also offers a client portal, which will come in handy once the intake process wraps up and you start working with the client on her matter. Finally, a Zapier integration passes all that data into any other systems you may need — for example, a practice management platform, accounting software, or a CRM.
There’s no point in rehashing the comparison between the many document automation platforms out there — we did just that last month. Most of these platforms share very similar feature sets, including intake forms and robust document automation. Some have portals. None have scheduling tools out of the box. Most will allow you to take payments and integrate with LawPay. Any of these could have a place in an intake system. However, most would require significant supplementation with outside tools and integrations — namely, a quality scheduling tool and perhaps an electronic signature tool as well.
You have a lot of choices, which doesn’t make this any easier. Most of the major players have gaping holes in their feature sets or a bundle of features, none of which are better than adequate.
While it may be tempting to piece together a handful of excellent standalone tools, and tie them all together with APIs and integrations, keep in mind that when it comes to training your staff or troubleshooting when a system goes down, the more moving pieces you are bringing into your system, the more infinitely difficult it will be to track down problems and master those features.
Since the beginning, Rally has focused on the entire experience, including usability for both the client and the law firm. The platform brings together everything in a single platform, with scheduling, payment, client questionnaires, e-signatures, Zapier integration, and of course, their bread—and—butter—document automation. Thus, allowing you to manage everything from a client’s initial interest to when they become a customer and maintain that long-term relationship.