So you've decided to make the leap into a virtual or online law practice. You've weighed the pros and cons and think you have a client base that is (a) tech-savvy, (b) in need of counsel, and (c) willing to hire you, rather than some online legal services provider.
Wonderful. Now you need to consider the finer points, beginning with how you'll manage to run conflict checks and handle intake for online-only clients. And with a client base that could stretch as far as the geographic borders of where you are licensed to practice, this is no small concern.
Is a 2-Step Approach Best?
A lot of lawyer websites have "Contact Us" forms, which include name, contact information, and a space for the potential client to discuss his or her problem.
The problem is: You don't want that person to give you any sensitive information until you are sure that there is no conflict. Otherwise, not only will you waste the person's time, but you might lose a client who caused the conflict of interest, or end up with an ethics case.
Your best bet seems to be a two-stage process. If you are including a contact form on your website, whether you are online-only, or the form is merely a way to gather leads and get clients in your office, you might want to limit the amount of information folks can provide on first contact to the basics needed to screen for conflicts -- name, former attorneys' names, opposing party, opposing counsel, addresses, and other basic data that you can run through your existing conflicts database.
After the conflict screening is done, you can then send a follow-up email to the client with instructions for filling out intake paperwork and a retainer agreement.
Beware the Variants
Peacock. Penrock. Willie. Willy. William. Willard. Bill. Johnson. Johnston. John. Johnathan. Jonathan. Between nicknames, maiden names, homophones, minor variations, and shortenings, there are many ways to accidentally miss a possible conflict. Many software solutions will account for the variations on a name.
This is why it is important to check for more than just a first and last name: addresses, birthdates, and related parties might help to locate such a conflict.
Editor's Note, January 22, 2016: This post was first published in January 2015. It has since been updated.