Starting your own solo practice can be an exciting and overwhelming endeavor (just ask Josh). Things like marketing, a sudden loss of confidence in your legal abilities, and effective time management can easily derail a day or even a week.

The multitude of responsibilities can also lead to less focus on a critical element of a successful solo attorney: client intake.

Your voice is the first impression

According to my unscientific math, at least half of all solo attorneys answer their own phone. That means their voice, their demeanor, and their patience (or lack thereof) will set the tone immediately.

If you are overwhelmed and crabby, that will come across to the potential client. If you are desperate to take any client that has a checkbook, that will come across to the client.

I have a simple rule: if I am in the middle of something important or if I am crabby, I won’t answer my phone. Even if I can’t help them, I have no interest in developing a reputation as a crabby attorney who is curt with potential clients.

Sure, there is a danger that the client will call someone else, or think that I can’t/won’t answer my phone. For the most part, I have discovered that clients who actually want to hire an attorney (and specifically me) are willing to leave a message. It’s not an exact science, but it has been effective so far.

Be an active listener and pay attention to details

With the overwhelming surge of technology, it is easy to talk to a potential client’s story while simultaneously responding to e-mails. Don’t fall into that trap; that just means you are simultaneously doing a poor job at two things.

Initial phone calls are critical to determining whether it appears you can handle the case. Perhaps even more importantly, they will help you spot bad clients or clients you can’t work with.

You don’t need to play interrogator, but you need to ask questions about the client’s story. Why did they do that? What happened in between? Why did they decide to call you now? Potential clients like to tell their version of the story and leave out potentially negative details.

Picking up on little details—like when a client tells you what the law means—are a great way to screen out armchair lawyer clients that can make even the best case unattractive. Don’t forget that your time is valuable—use initial phone calls to make sure they have a case and they have a personality that you can handle.

Every existing client was a potential client at some point

On the days when client intake is driving me crazy, or feels like it is taking up my entire day, I remind myself that a couple of these potential clients will turn into actual clients. That goes a long way towards snapping me out of the intake funk.

Granted, you will likely turn away more potential clients than you will actually take. But some of those people will turn into clients, probably great clients, and they may turn into repeat or lifelong clients.

Remind yourself of that the next time you find your patience quickly fading or notice your charm has left the room. Lawyers are professionals and we are also professional service providers. The success of your firm starts and ends with creating strong attorney-client relationships.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/cayusa/535527653/)