Client/Matter Numbers: Sooner Rather Than Later
by Aaron Brown
New Business Intake (NBI) teams can be wary of giving attorneys client/matter numbers for fear that once they have provided the number, they have lost all leverage to collect additional vital information about the engagement. However, given the appropriate controls, providing a client/matter number as early as possible in the NBI process can have a range of benefits. The focus in this process must be centered on allowing attorneys to service their clients as quickly as possible, not holding client/matter numbers “hostage” as a method of getting vital information.
A two-phase approach can be a good way to collect the vital information required to open a new matter. Phase one: ask the basic questions required to accurately start the conflicts of interest review and approval process. Phase two: prompt for additional required information needed to accurately bill the client and document matter metadata. The supplementary details that would be obtained in phase two are typically data points like billing addresses, client demographic information, and non-essential financial information. While important to have, this information is often not vital to the initial review process. When these details are required to receive a matter number, it is far more likely that users will provide incomplete or inaccurate information just to get past the requirement.
The assigned client/matter number is a pivotal piece of information that allows other business processes to proceed accurately. When a client/matter number is not available, the firm runs the risk that time will not be captured or billed properly. Even if a “holding pen” for time is available, a certain percentage of time never gets properly transferred to the resulting matters. In the absence of a formal number your end users are also forced to save documents to “personal” or other administrative workspaces within the document management system. When the client/matter number is made available as early as possible there is a greater likelihood that time is recorded against the correct matter, and that important documents are properly housed. Furthermore, in the event of having to decline the representation, important details are recorded in the firm’s conflicts system. This provides a thorough record of why an engagement was not able to proceed.
Law firms beginning to think about a multi-phased approach to client/matter numbers must determine what is critical for the “initial” phase of the new matter request. Typically, beyond the basic matter information (e.g. matter name, description, and attorneys), this phase would include conflicts of interest clearance, as well as basic financial and risk management questions. The opening attorney, conflicts team (analysts and conflicts attorneys), and risk management team would then coordinate to create a “pending” client/matter number. This number can look exactly like a finalized client/matter number or have a code prefix to indicate that it is in a pending status. Law firms can use this pending number until the second phase is completed and the finalized client/matter number is realized.
Once NBI teams learn more about the functionality of the phased intake approach and its concrete benefits, the perceived lack of leverage following issuing the matter number should quickly disappear.