First Edition, June 1996
A Web site is a terrific way to find new clients. It can also be a frustrating waste of time. This section includes 12 tips on how to use email in dealing with prospective clients. It is written by Bruce A. Hake, based on 18 months of experience finding clients on the Internet.
1. Reply promptly. This is the cardinal rule. Never let more than 24 hours go by without replying--and whenever possible you should reply much sooner than that. Most people who come to Immigration Lawyers on the Web looking for a lawyer contact several lawyers there, and they have probably contacted other lawyers on the newsgroups or in other ways. The early bird gets the worm.
2. A summary reply is OK. Although you absolutely must reply quickly, you don't always have time for a careful response. It is good practice in such situations to send a short acknowledgement email saying, "Thank you for your query. I will send you a careful reply as soon as I can." People appreciate this kind of courtesy very much.
3. Get help, but not too much. Some organizations have several full-time employees to manage a Web site. If at all possible, you should designate someone in your office to monitor email from your Web site on at least a daily basis. Ideally, the person would check email several times a day. But don't rely on this person to answer all your email for you! A client-lawyer relationship is a personal relationship. Assistants can handle much of the ongoing client contact responsibilities in active cases, of course. But prospective clients need personal attention of the lawyer, just as much in email as if they had walked in the door.
4. You don't have to type. Some lawyers on ILW have someone in the office print out emails to which they dictate responses. This is cumbersome but can be very effective.
5. Protect yourself. Be aware of the risk that an email correspondent may assume you are acting as his or her lawyer and will rely on anything you say. The formation of a client-lawyer relationship does not require an express contract for it to be upheld by a court or bar authority: if the person reasonably believed you were acting as legal counsel, you're on the hook. Therefore, you should routinely include a disclaimer somewhere on most or all emails to nonclients (and in postings to public newsgroups) expressing two concepts: (1) a client-lawyer relationship has not been formed; and (2) what you say should not be relied upon as legal advice without advice of counsel. Good practice is to set up your email and browser programs so that a "signature file" is attached to the bottom of all your emails and newsgroup postings. Here is an example:
Smith & Jones, P.C.
Information herein is generalized and should not be relied upon without advice of a lawyer. This communication does not create a client-lawyer relationship.
6. Establish policies regarding time and fees and stick to them. The Internet is an excellent source of well-educated immigration clients with good jobs and interesting cases. But for every high-quality client, there are five people just fishing for information or window-shopping for a lawyer. You have to be cheerful and philosophical about this, treating everyone with equal courtesy, while expecting only a fraction of email contacts to blossom into open matters. In addition, you need to protect your time. Email can eat you alive. One of my first Internet clients was an incredibly voluble, out-of-work scientist with unlimited access to the Internet. He sent hundreds of emails during a two-month consular processing case. I made about $5/hr for my successful work, counting all the email time. I've since learned to set firmer rules at the outset. My usual policy is to offer a short correspondence of 2 or 3 emails back and forth free of charge, advising in my first response that after that I will need to start charging. Some exchanges go nowhere, but a significant percentage ripen into paying clients. I do not believe it makes sense to charge a consultation fee for an initial email contact, but other lawyers may differ on this.
7. Post your ground rules on your Web site. Time wasted on email from non-clients is time not available for active clients. Some lawyers try to minimize the amount of junk email they get by posting ground rules on their Web sites. The rules may state, for example, that emails will not be answered if they merely pose questions that are specifically answered by materials posted on the site.
8. Cut the volume with questionnaires and form responses. Some questions come up repeatedly from prospective clients, and standard questions must be posed to prospective clients. Electronic questionnaire forms are useful for making more efficient the process of gathering standard background information. Moreover, someone who takes the trouble to fill out a questionnaire has already invested some time in pursuing your counsel, and is more likely to stick around. Common questions, either about the law or about your firm's policies, can be answered via materials posted on your Web site, to which you can refer in a short email response instead of retyping everything, or they can be sent to clients via regular mail.
9. Don't mindlessly requote everything. Most email readers' automatic quotation feature is a blessing and a curse. If both correspondents mindlessly quote everything back and forth, the emails can quickly grow to ridiculous, mind-numbing length. Quote selectively. Chop away material you do not need to respond to. Get to the point.
10. Keep good records. You can get incredibly confused incredibly quickly if you don't keep good records of all email contacts. I recommend using a generic "prospective clients" folder in your email program to store all emails back and forth with prospective clients. Once a prospective client becomes a real client, the emails should be moved to a new folder. In addition, hard-copy printouts should be made of all the correspondence for the case file. Also, be sure your electronic email records are backed up! Hard drives fail. You don't want to have to reconstruct your life if your hard drive fails and you lose all records of 20 pending and potential matters.
11. Use the telephone. Email is so easy to use that it can seduce you into a false sense of friendship and understanding. In fact, however, email communications are potentially misleading and incapable of supporting by themselves a complex relationship such as a client-lawyer relationship, because so much of human communication requires nuances of tone that are entirely missing in email. Therefore, while email is useful for initial contacts and for ongoing communications, it is extremely important to arrange telephone or in-person contact as soon as possible. I think it is good policy to charge a consultation fee for a telephone contact, if the person is too far away to come in to your office.
12. Warmth counts. Email is a cool medium. Moreover, it is very easy to brush people off in email with perfunctory responses. If you're going to do email, you need to do it right. That requires some real warmth and imagination. You have to make an active leap of the imagination to distill the human reality of the situation presented out of a cool and cursory communication. Then you have to project some genuine warmth and empathy in responding. Some lawyers who are masters of in-person or telephone interactions turn into robots when they try to use email. Don't let that happen to you. Don't let the "virtual" nature of the communication obscure the fact that the people writing you are real.