The Life Cycle of a Matter - NBI Considerations

By Michael Guernon posted 08-09-2017 15:00



New Business Intake is a central hub in law firm information management.  It is the front door to key data items about the client, the work the firm does as a whole and corresponding details.  As an added incentive, it’s necessary.  You can’t bill clients without client-matter numbers, and you can’t create client-matter numbers without some form of an intake system. 

Intake systems can help a law firm effectively manage data.  As a hub, they can be conduit to various other departments in the firm for downstream information.  Finance and billing can be recipients of critical fee details, instructions and the client’s billing preferences.  Marketing can be a recipient to nominal matter details like matter description, department group, specific types of practice and even specific types of deals within the practice.  IT departments and Litigation support departments can be notified of potential resources needs, whether it is discovery services or extranet hosting.  Records departments and calendar can be notified that new files and or docketing events are required.  Overall it can serves as critical launching point for core firm functions, throughout the client-matter life-cycle.

Since intake is positioned at the start of a new engagement (ideally), and as a requirement, it represents the best opportunity to capture key data.  Attorneys want the client number to track their time.  Accordingly intake is tied to very critical tasks which the attorneys depend on for revenue generation.  Some firms even incentivize attorneys to get matters opened, to best manage the billing cycle.  So the process is well positioned to address core and mutual needs.  Quid pro quo.  Efforts to obtain this information after the fact lack incentives and are often ineffective.  Armed with this knowledge, the next task is to create an intake system that balances efficiency with good data capture.

You’ll want to avoid an intake process that can be overburdened if other departments build too many ancillary steps into it.  Too many marketing questions, or billing details and the end users become frustrated.  They might swear off the process altogether and simply bill new work under an existing number.  "[That] would be bad”, to paraphrase Dr. Egon Spengler (Parapsychology, Columbia University).   So restraint and reason must be applied when building out an intake system.  You’ll want to make sure each field has a key purpose and serves some function.  If a down-stream department no longer uses the “referred by” field, remove it, and use the freed up real-estate for a better question.

In the same vein, care should be taken when designing or purchasing an intake system.  Gone are the days when people would fill out a paper form and send in the inter-office run, or fax.  With the advent of online forms in modern commerce (including the DMV), law firms too should embrace this technology. You’ll want to leverage functionality so that questions designed for certain departments, like litigation, are only seen when someone selects that department.  Designs like this, with “Smart-forms” will buy you good graces with secretaries and attorneys who fill out the form.  You are letting them know that you respect their time/effort and are only asking them necessary questions.  The better designed the form, the more opportunities you can introduce for more data capture.  If the secretary can default the office, practice group and department based off the submitting attorney three fields  are consolidated from one entry.  You can then ask two more questions for marketing or knowledge management, and still have a “net gain”.  Online forms also allow for easier workflow tracking.  Transparency can be obtained where an attorney or secretary can see the status of their intake request as it is being processed.  They will still probably call (and email, stalk your office, give you dirty looks) about their number, but you’ve at least given them an autonomous option.

The workflow itself should also be automated.  In this day and age there is absolutely no reason under the sun why intake data objects cannot be replicated directly into the billing, conflicts and various distribution systems once the matter is reviewed and approved.  Automation allows an intake department to refocus efforts away from rekeying data to actually analyzing the content. Skill sets can be redeployed to better data stewardship, compliance efforts, financial assessment (credit worthiness, client history, etc).   In addition, if you can leverage technology and open matters quickly, then theoretically you’ve removed barriers to the system.  Attorneys will have little excuse not to open matters through official channels if the process is quick (and relatively painless).

There are a lot of workflow products on the market today.  Some Conflict Data vendors now offer workflow products in their suite of packages.  Automated workflow goes back almost 20 years now, and a lot of the rough edges have been smoothed out.  When I started we used a workflow tool that replicated email functionality.  Except at a time when emails opened in 3 seconds, this program took almost two minutes.  Asking a partner to wait 2 minutes to open an email and approve….well that was a lesson on the limits of patience.  Since then, however, workflow tools have improved.  They can be launched seamlessly as part of a firm portal tool.  The one caveat with workflow design is simplicity.  Keep it simple.  If the billing department needs to know when a specific bill rate is set, and that happens in 1 in every 200 requests, consider an offline solution.  Don’t spends months designing a derivative “one-off” that is rarely used or will quickly fall out of favor.

All this being, the intake process can be easily overlooked at a law firm.  As other departments clamor for attention and resources, whether it be yet another “Interaction data campaign”, or “practice group nomenclature overhaul”, intake can sometimes be forgotten.  But it’s an absolute necessity to remain in the fight, because eventually the shine fades on a “new-fangled block-chain invoice tracker”.  And most, if not all, roads eventually lead back and through intake.  To overcome these distractions, maintain vigilance on an intake systems that obtains, stores and tracks critical firm data.  Consider what the firm now has, and what it might need (i.e. indicators based on where the work is done, or where the client actually resides etc).   If the firm has strategic goals to expand in a market, or region, consider how your intake form could assist those efforts, by asking pertinent questions (i.e. is the client in the auto-car business?) Seek out a place at the Technology Committee table or at least have a good working relationship with your Chief Information Officer.  Better yet, become the Chief Information Officer, because intake operations give you the best perspective to see data as it comes in, where it needs to go, and how it can add value across the entire firm.