10 First Contact and Intake: Phones

Your potential client calls. Now what? You should have a way of capturing the basic information about the person and the matter. You may need to retain this information for a substantial period of time, maybe for the life of your practice.

Your professional obligations to retain a client file are beyond this text’s scope. I’m also leaving out any discussions of the paperless office because I think that it doesn’t work for all practice areas or lawyers, but definitely investigate it if you would like to collect less paper.

But if you create a lawyer-client relationship, then what you capture in the first contact may be something you need to keep in the file. A word of advice: consider setting, up front, the retention schedule for a client file and how you will get the file to the client when the matter closes. Otherwise you will join the ranks of lawyers who have garages and offsite storage full of old client files that they cannot get rid of.

And you’ll want to have a calendar handy to set up an appointment.

Phones

Wait. What about phones? I mentioned that you might use Microsoft Skype, Google Hangouts, or some other virtual technology rather than a traditional phone. Voice over IP (VOIP) phones are common now and can be a good option in certain practices. You may not even know that you are using VOIP, it has become so common in business environments.

There are also Web apps like Google Voice that has free inbound and outbound phone calls in North America, and the person you’re calling can just use a phone even if you are on a PC and headset. Microsoft Skype is similar (although paid) and you can have a phone number that people with phones can call, or they can use their own Skype accounts.  While free services are attractive, understand any quality limitations, outages, and limits on phone number availability or porting before signing up.

VOIP isn’t just software applications and a headset with a microphone. In fact, there is no reason to use a headset and microphone if you would prefer to use a regular handset as a softphone. A softphone is a handset that uses software (like Microsoft Skype) from a VOIP phone system provider. I use a Native Union Pop phone with a PC for VOIP calls but there are many options and hands-free systems make it easier to use your computer and talk at the same time.

You can also buy business phones that use VOIP and otherwise resemble a standard desktop phone. The underlying software can be hosted in your firm or in the cloud. You can also use VOIP just inside your law firm and connect from your firm’s private branch exchange (PBX) using a traditional phone connection. Or your firm can use a PBX in the cloud.

As you’ll see with just about any technology in a law practice, there are many choices and not necessarily any one best answer. Look for comparisons between the types of technology – like a comparison about putting your phone system in the cloud – to see what works best for you.

The primary consideration with VOIP is that “I” – the Internet. You need to ensure that your Internet connectivity and that of the people you’re calling is up to the audio and, potentially, video that you intend to use. Video can be helpful particularly if you are interacting with a potential client and need to verify that they are who they say they are, under your professional rules. Keep in mind that for video you will want much faster bandwidth and a camera.

A new Web-based technology called Web Real Time Communications (WebRTC) is emerging that will further blur communications technology distinctions. Web browsers like Mozilla’s Firefox and Google’s Chrome will be able to support video calls directly, without any additional software, between two individuals. The functionality still relies on the Internet but it is being integrated more tightly into the fundamental tools, rather than as a separate app.

This is just scratching the surface. You can use a smart phone and ditch land lines, using just the one phone number for all your professional communications. The upsides include simplicity and the ability to claim business deductions for your device. The downsides mean that you may not be able to escape phone calls if your number is in your marketing and every client’s speed dial.

There are also the apps for smart phones – whether Microsoft Skype or Google Voice or Apple’s Facetime – that you can use as a less expensive way to call over wireless (wi-fi rather than cellular or data) networks. The apps can complement your regular calling method, whether it’s smartphone or VOIP or a more traditional phone setup. The right choice is what makes most sense for how you work and what you can afford to spend to ensure good, clear communications.

Answering the Call

Virtual receptionists are not strictly speaking technology but they can allow you to get assistance as you need it without immediately hiring staff. They are worth mentioning because one of the benefits of technology and virtual services is that they can enable you to do more of the legal work and less of the business operations. In other words, you can focus on your specialty and leave other tasks to people who are more expert at them than you.

You will need to understand what tools the receptionist uses (most likely based on VOIP from whatever remote location they work from) and how you would get information to and from them and under what schedule and costs. It can be more efficient to have a service or staff person handling the initial contact and basic information collection, rather than having calls going to voice mail and juggling your responses.

If you rely on voice mail, it can be forwarded as an e-mail in many VOIP systems. This can be helpful if your phone is turned off or otherwise not accessible. The point here is that you do not need to do everything yourself and there is almost always more than one way to use technology to address whatever your need is.

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