Back to Blog
Improving Intake is a Mistake, text over a photo of the intake of a jet engine.

Improving Law Firm Intake is a Mistake

improve your productivity Jun 05, 2021

For some reason there seems to be dozens of companies out there trying to convince lawyers and law firms that they need to improve their client intake. On the one hand, I get it: firms tend to be looking for more and better clients, they spend good money on marketing efforts to attract those clients, and intake can feel like a bottleneck preventing those hard-won prospects from entering the money-making part of your practice.

And before I proceed, let me admit that there's a chance that intake really is your firm's bottleneck. If it is, and you know it is, then you are welcome to tell me why I'm a moron for saying otherwise. I can take it. But I'll bet you a cup of coffee I that I can definitively prove that yours is among the vast majority of law firms that should not improve their intake process.

This post started as a Twitter rant thread, so I'll keep some of the character of the original. What set me off was a "sponsored post" that showed up in my email inbox purporting to sell a "super intake system." I'll drop in the original thread and then some follow-up debate I had with a legal marketer (who I like and respect) that had some quibbles with me.

Why it is stupid (and harmful) for most lawyers / law firms to work on improving their intake process, a thread 🧵 ...
The Theory of Constraints (aka bottleneck theory) tells us that in any multi-part system there is always a single bottleneck that constrains the flow of work through the entire system. It is the systems thinking way of saying "every chain has a weakest link."
Just as there may be multiple weak links in a chain, there can be multiple slow points in a multi-part workflow. But only one of them is the worst—it will fail under stress (and then the pressure will be relieved for the rest, but not in a good way).

Once you accept that every workflow has a single (worst) bottleneck, there are two corollaries that must also be true. The first is easy: If you can improve the flow of work at the bottleneck, then you will improve the flow of work through the entire system.

The second is harder for many people to accept: Anything you do to improve the flow of work through a part of your system that isn't the bottleneck won't help. Even if it is your pet peeve or is otherwise bugging you.

If your "improvement" is downstream of your true bottleneck, then that section of your workflow will remain starved for work and the time and effort you put into your improvement will have been wasted. But at least you won't have made the system worse. On the other hand if you improve a stage of your workflow that is upstream of the bottleneck, then you will unintentionally put even more stress and pressure on that bottlenecked step. Little's Law teaches us that this will cause performance at the bottleneck to degrade even further!

Then, not only have you wasted your time and effort at improving the wrong thing, you've actually done more harm than good to your overall system. Which brings me back to why I cringe every time I see some snazzy #legaltech tool purporting to improve intake.

In any legal business, there are three high-level workflows to manage: The "getting the work" pipeline, the "doing the work" pipeline, and the "getting paid" pipeline. The firm's bottleneck can only be in one of these pipelines.

If your bottleneck is in the "getting paid" pipeline, it is relatively easy to tell. It will manifest as big AR balances and lots of 60- and 90-day entries on the ageing report. Fortunately the solutions are also simple (h/t @leerosen): Accept credit cards & use evergreen retainers.

If your bottleneck is in the "getting the work pipeline" you'll know it because you will have too much free time  and you'll be tempted to start practicing door law. If you're just starting out, this is normal. If you're further along, it is a sign of poor product design.

Because law is a seller's market (apologies to @jordan_law21) most firms' bottleneck is in the "doing the work" pipeline. If I had to guess, it would have something to do with client homework, but that's a topic for another thread. Here's what this has to do with intake...

Intake is the bridge between the "getting the work" pipeline and the "doing the work" pipeline. It is, by definition, upstream of the rest of the "doing the work" work. See above, but I'll repeat it here: Improving a stage of work that is upstream of the bottleneck does more harm than good because it puts more pressure on your practice's true choke point. This will cause your workflow to slow down or break entirely.

Therefore, unless you're 100% sure that intake is your true bottleneck and not just a pet peeve, then spending time and effort on a tool (or process) to improve your intake is not just throwing money away, it is sabotaging your entire system.

Better to spend that time & effort finding and improving your true bottleneck; it is the only way to generate a positive return on your process improvement investment. Then, you can use that return to engage with a much more fun kind of bottleneck 🍾.

So that's the gist. Anyone familiar with my earlier posts on the Theory of Constraints won't be too surprised by this take, but it kinda rankles folks who are hard core legal marketing advocates.

One of them responded to my original tweet from a legal marketer's perspective to share their frustration:

If you've ever ran the marketing for a firm (not your own), it's maddening to drive a massive amount of calls and form submits and have lawyers sit on 'em for days. Years of Clio Trends Reports say things like "lawyers wait an average of [too many] days to reply."

And they're not wrong! the 2019 Clio Trends Report did in fact include a whole section on clients' desires for quick responses and their tendency to shop around (especially if they don't connect quickly with the first firm they try). The people surveyed ranked "timely response" as the number one most important thing they consider when choosing a lawyer.

So Marketing has delivered this lead, and the lead wants to hear back in less than 24 hours, yet the lawyer botches the opportunity by stalling the callback. No wonder the Marketing person gets frustrated! So why wouldn't I want that firm to improve their intake to better capture that lead?

The answer lies in the difference between siloed thinking and systems thinking. The marketing person above is very likely engaging in siloed thinking. After all, they were hired to generate leads, and they did their job. Not their fault if the lawyers screw up the conversion but it sure is maddening.

But the systems thinker would instead wonder, "what the firm can't actually handle more work?" As I responded to the tweet:

Lawyers "sitting on leads" is self-protecting behavior. Their brain is saying, "I am already busier than I'm comfortable with, therefore the last thing I want is to throw another case into the mix. Better to ignore it and hope it goes away than to add to my stress."

This gets to one of my favorite topics when I'm starting out with new law firm clients. The first prerequisite to improved productivity is an honest reckoning with your capacity.

Conventional wisdom with law practices is that you should do your best to fully utilize your resources. In other words, that you should be running your team at as close as possible to 100% capacity. The problem is that 100% of an unknown number is still an unknown number. And very few firms I talk with are able to quantify their carrying capacity for client work.

I actually did an explainer video on this topic at the beginning of the pandemic, albeit in a slightly different context. At the time, with the closing of court buildings (and before many courts' rapid move to remote hearings), my concern was that a continuing input of new cases into America's courthouses at a time when processing and output was effectively frozen. It isn't hard to intuit that this is problematic, but it turns out that this is (another) one of those situations where the potential for geometric growth of a problem tends to catch us humans unprepared.


In the end the situation wasn't as dire as my predictions, but that's largely because the move to remote proceedings for a large part of the courts' business sometimes turned out to be more effective at moving cases along for courts, lawyers, and clients than the previous in-person norm.

Back to intake: hopefully you can see the parallels between new cases flooding an at- or over-capacity courthouse and doing the same with an at- or over-capacity law practice. For a firm that is "full," getting more cases is not just the wrong answer, it is an actively harmful one.

In a perfect law firm system, the ideal for the marketing function is to generate exactly the quantity of new cases the firm can handle, of the exact type they want, exactly when they are needed (i.e. as soon as the firm wraps up an existing case). Of course this ideal is mythical, but it is still important to keep in mind because every bit of progress you make towards reaching the ideal will yield benefits for your practice.

Missing the target on this ideal is waste (in the Lean sense of the term), regardless of which direction you're off.

If your marketing isn't delivering enough new cases at a rate your firm can handle, then you're wasting the capacity in your delivery pipeline. The simplest solution is to do more marketing, but there are other possibilities to consider: Perhaps you aren't building the kinds of products or services your target audience wants to buy, in which case you need to do some product design work. Or maybe you've got a great product that you're pitching to the wrong audience, or you've chosen the wrong channel to reach the buyers you're looking for. (These last ones are where a good marketing professional can really help).

But if your marketing is delivering more cases than you can comfortably deliver, then you're wasting your marketing efforts (by "sitting on leads" or any other self-sabotaging behavior). The simplest solution is to add more capacity, but doing that is rarely simple. "Buying" capacity (in the form of hiring employees) is useful only if you're really sure you will be able to make the investment yield a benefit. Renting might be an option—via temp workers or outsourcing to places like LawClerk—but that involves investments in re-tooling your workflows to manage external resources.

Other options include investing in technology and, my favorite, engaging in process improvement efforts. But trying to introduce new tech or improve processes with huge case load is challenging and dangerous. It is akin to trying to remove boulders to improve the flow of a river during its spring floods; you risk getting smashed against a rock and even if you're successful, the effort will be exhausting.

Also, when you think about what you can "comfortably" deliver, realize that your perspective is clouded by how you experience the work. You (and your team) probably will experience this discomfort as feeling "overworked" or "stressed." But think about what this looks like from your client's perspective. The Clio trends report says that clients expect a callback within 24 hours when hiring a lawyer... how must they feel when that same lawyer takes months and months to actually resolve their legal matter?

The hallmark of an effective workflow is one where the total cycle time for the work (the amount of time it spends within the system) is as close as possible to the working time (the amount of time you spend actually doing the work—you probably know it as billable hours). The difference between the two is waiting time. Some waiting, especially from the client's perspective, is inevitable. After all, it takes time to actually do the work! But there is good waiting and there is wasteful waiting: times when the work is literally just sitting there with nothing happening because it is waiting on some person or tool or information needed to do the work.

A perfectly efficient workflow from the customer's perspective is something like a vending machine: You put in your money, select your product, and you have to wait only as long as it takes for the corkscrew to turn your product and deliver it to the little door at the bottom. You even get the satisfaction of watching the gears turn during the brief waiting period, so you know something is happening. (I'll ignore, for now, the fact that all of the items inside of the vending machine represent inventory that is just waiting to be sold from the vendor's perspective).

I doubt, however, that your law practice is much like a vending machine. For one, there is just a lot of necessary waiting in most legal workflows: due process is a form of intentional inefficiency, enforced in the pursuit of fairness. But we sometimes let this intentional inefficiency trick us into believing that all forms of waiting are necessary. They're not. I can explain the benefit of due process to my client, but it's a lot harder to justify "I just haven't had time to get to it." That's wasteful waiting. Both you, and your client, have made some investment in getting that matter started, but the return on that investment usually won't come until the matter is finished and the client can go on with their life. People don't hire lawyers to experience the thrill of having a legal matter in progress, they hire lawyers to get their sh** done.

Which brings us to the real problem with improving intake when your actual bottleneck lies in your delivery workflow. Waiting time is bad for you and your client alike, both because it represents investment without yielding benefit and it creates a terrible customer experience. Little's Law tells us that waiting times increase geometrically as utilization of a system's resources goes up. Therefore adding new work into an already full system causes wait times to skyrocket. 

In order to make the kinds of investments necessary to improve your delivery system's capacity, you need to first reduce the amount of work in that system. That means focusing all of your efforts on closing existing cases and then not replacing them—at least not yet—with new ones from your intake process.

In other words, the first step to improving a delivery bottleneck in your law practice is to do less intake, not more. Pause your marketing if you can, or at least be really up front with your leads about when you can actually start their case. At the very least, raise your standards for the kinds of cases you're willing to take, and have fortitude around rejecting cases that don't meet your standard. Anything to slow down the rate of intake so that you can get more work out the door. 

Then, once you've reduced things from a roiling boil to a more manageable simmer, you can do the work necessary to improve the people, processes, and tools in your system and increase your delivery capacity.


Want to discuss how adopting Agile methods can improve productivity and teamwork for your legal team? I can help. I love helping lawyers and their teams find ways to work better, so don't hesitate to schedule a free 30 minute discovery call to talk about improving the flow of work in your law practice.

Agile Attorney Updates

Join my newsletter to be notified when I add new blog posts, podcast episodes, or other tips and tools for an Agile legal practice