An on-boarding process is essentially the process by which you take on a client after she has contracted for your services. I tend to see it as going beyond the signing of a retainer/engagement agreement. It is how you begin the actual working relationship, by setting expectations and creating an understanding between you and your client.
A clear on-boarding process achieves the following:
captures more information about your new client's needs so that you can serve her better
sets your new client's expectations by giving her a clearer idea of your work process
This typically creates confidence in your firm's attentiveness. Most people are intimidated by lawyers, and this discomfort is often magnified by the perception that lawyers "talk down" to lay persons. In addition, lay clients are not immune to suspicions that attorneys use their knowledge and expertise to retain an "upper hand" in the working relationship, thereby leaving the client feeling like she is being held hostage. Where trust is at such levels, it is likely that a client would have cold feet and decide not to retain your firm, or terminate the relationship. Hence, anything you and your staff can do to ease discomfort for your client and provide transparency can only strengthen their commitment to working with you.
Even if a prospect has already signed a retainer/engagement agreement with your firm, the on-boarding process will serve to put their minds at ease as to how you will manage their case and stay in communication with them throughout the process. Your on-boarding process can expand/further explain aspects of the engagement agreement (e.g. how hourly rates are tracked, which items will be billed and why, how often bills will be sent to the client etc.).
An effective on-boarding process typically begins with providing your prospective client with a short questionnaire.
That form should capture her name and contact information, and set out a list of questions that gives you a much better of her needs, concerns, goals, timelines and budget.
Beyond the administrative goals such questions fulfill, the real value of this information is to give you a sense of where your client's anxiety lies. It also can reveal to you (and her) deeper facts that may impact the outcome of her case. Open-ended questions about concerns and goals can sometimes also allow the client to be more candid with you. Having a questionnaire before her will allow her time to give more consideration to some of the facts of her case.
The questionnaire should also provide a field for how she came to know about your firm and its services (e.g. search engines, social media, a friend or family member, other professionals in your network etc..). This is invaluable information as to what is working for your firm in terms of generating new business/leads.
Use the on-boarding process to enhance client comfort with your team.
It's always a good idea to include the contact and biographical information of your team as part of your on-boarding packet for the client. Providing your team's bio and contact information will help the client feel that there are other people supporting her, in addition to yourself. Let her know that she can contact your paralegal at a specific email address and number about certain types of questions that relate to paperwork and filings and forms.
You are likely to have spent a fair amount of time and money (e.g. on marketing) acquiring your prospects. It would be a real pity to lose them at the very last moment due to an uninspiring on-boarding process.