In this episode of Civilly Speaking, host Sean Harris talks with Ashley Rutherford Starling, a trial attorney from Columbus, Ohio. Ashley offers valuable information on the client intake process when handling garden variety personal injury cases.
Sean: Hello, I’m your host, Sean Harris and this is Episode 51 of Civilly Speaking, brought to you by the Ohio Association for Justice. Today’s August 19th, and I’m here with our guest, Ashley Rutherford Starling. Ashley, thanks very much for joining us here on Civilly Speaking.
Ashley: Thank you so much for having me.
Sean: Our topic today is one that’s I think often take it for granted by practitioners around Ohio, and that is the intake process. What’s involved and what’s important? Talk to us about streamlining the process in a garden variety personal injury case of meeting with a client for the first time.
Ashley: Well, first and foremost, I personally like to do my own intake. And I know that people are kind of across the board on how they like to do that, but for me personally, I literally like to be the one to handwrite everything and I’m sure my staff hates that sometimes because I don’t have the best of handwriting, but I find that even the very simple questions of just name, address, social security number, etc. might bring the client to start talking about something else and give me valuable information that I need in order to really do well for them in handling their claim and so, I literally start out, and how I like to start out first is just to ask them the very basic information. I don’t want to know about the accident until I have the basics, because the first thing that we really should be doing and we do in my office is a conflicts check because if you do high volume work, you never know when one of your former clients is going to end up being the potential defendant in a lawsuit. So we want to make sure that we’re not in a position where we have to deal with that. So that’s really why I like to personally get that first bit of information. The way I see it is if I block off an hour and I spend the entire hour really working with this potential client, deciding what they can expect from their case and what I think I can do to help them and really start to I call it triaging the case, really looking at all the pieces, trying to figure out how I want to put the case together that will save me so much time down the road.
Sean: And you mentioned the importance of doing it, of conducting the intake yourself. I think a lot of potential clients expect to talk to a lawyer.
Ashley: I think so, too and I think really, unless there’s some dire circumstance in which someone has to come in because of a statute of limitations, it’s almost always worth the wait or the extra time it takes to meet with the attorney, just especially because really or answering legal questions and so they should be able to sit down and have an attorney answer those legal questions and not just an intake person or someone else on your staff although I will say I think my staff does a fabulous job in the situations and times that they’ve had to do my intake. But I do think most people expect when they’re coming in, they’re going to be meeting with an attorney.
Sean: Now, you mentioned kind of setting expectations and thinking kind of globally about the case. At that initial meeting with the client do you talk about expectations, settlement expectations, time you know just kind of setting the tone?
Ashley: I definitely set the tone. I don’t really talk about settlement expectations because like we talk about with all of our clients, we don’t know all the information in the very beginning and so I think it’s very difficult to say, I believe you’re going to get X from a case. However, I can usually talk to them based upon, based upon the insurance companies that are involved, how long we can expect the process to take. At this point and after doing this for now, about eight years, I know which insurance companies take longer to get back to things. I also know generally which insurance companies are going to potentially make an offer that might be a viable option for a client early in a case and so, I do kind of talk through those pieces. I especially talk through whether or not at some point we want to utilize medical payments coverage, health insurance, what that might look like, whether or not there’s going to be subrogation, what they need to be looking for on their end and as part of the overall triaging of the process of intake.
Sean: Well, speaking of intake, it can be a document intensive process and although our listeners can’t see it, you’ve brought some documents along with you today. Tell us about the documents you use and how those help facilitate the legal relationship.
Ashley: Well, for the listeners that cannot see me, I have a huge folder here. Right. I do give all new clients a folder that contains a lot of information and part of that is, is I believe that by giving the clients the information, telling them how to find things and what to look for, I think it really helps them and it really helps with the amount of questions that we receive after intake is complete. So, one thing I have is on my intake paperwork is several pages. It has very first the basic information that you want to get from every single client, contact information and I think one that a lot of people look over is how do you best want to be contacted? Because for some of my clients, as long as they’re getting an email every month, they’re very happy. Other clients, I could be emailing them weekly and then they’re upset because they haven’t actually talked to me on the phone. So I think it’s really important to decide based upon what your client would like and so we do use several forms of communication with the client. We have a case management system as well that will even text them if needed. So however they want to get the information is how I want to get it to them, because that alone is a way you can streamline the process it’s just that communication piece, but the information I get, all of their information, their employment information, any prior accidents they’ve had, any worker’s compensation claims they may have had, slip and falls any other time that they’ve been injured regardless of the circumstances and then I ask the information regarding the case itself, whether or not they have a traffic report and if they do or don’t, I want to get them to describe what actually occurred to them because later on, when your formulating your demand package or your complaint, that information, getting it from the plaintiff’s perspective is very important so I like to write that down verbatim and like I said, I am generally almost entirely electronic at this point except for intake. I really do want to have a pen and paper in hand. I want my client to see me writing things down so they know that I have their best interests at heart when I’m working on their case. From there, I’d like to get obviously the insurance information and then if they’ve had their vehicle repaired, I want to know how much it costs for repairs. Unfortunately, I think there is a misnomer with many of the insurance companies on this idea of the low velocity accident and what that may look like. So I want to get photos if they have them off their cell phone while they’re in my office, because many times I’ll hear an adjuster say, well, this had to be a low velocity accident there was only so much damage, but if you see a picture of your client’s vehicle literally underneath another car or vice versa, the car underneath your client’s car, it really doesn’t matter what the property damage look like as far as whether or not there’s a mechanism of injury. So I’d like to know all that right up front and later on, I use that in some other ways. And then, of course, the medical background, whether they’ve seen any doctors, who they’ve seen, who they’re intending to see. I want all of that almost immediately, because at that point, what I do is at the completion of intake, my staff, they go ahead and order anything related to any hospital or any of the billing companies associated with which hospital. We do all of that thereafter. And then I have another stack of paperwork like I call a client and say the second stack is the contract itself and I don’t use the standard contract that’s provided by the Supreme Court. I use something a little larger because in my contract it also includes some additional disclaimers that over the years I’ve added things like whether or not you have child support obligations and you’re not telling me and what happens to the money, whether or not if you take out a pre-settlement loan, how that may affect your claim. Things like that, because we never know when our clients are going to have that or whether they’re going to tell us that they have back child support or if they need a pre-settlement loan. But just talking with them generally, I know what they’re going to need based upon whether or not they’re off work so I always like to go through those disclaimers and course go through the process. There are two copies of my complaint in here. I have my client sign both and I put the other copy in the folder so that they have it. The Supreme Court, our ethics rules require that if you have a contingency agreement with a client that they get a copy. So I don’t even bother to make a copy, I just give them an original and then as we go through the process of intake and I go through the contract, I literally checkmark off each paragraph so that later on, if the client has any concerns or has any questions, they can go back and refer to the paragraph, but also, if later on they say, well, you didn’t talk to me about this for some reason I have written confirmation that I did. From there, I have the additional information we may need for Medicare and Medicaid, as well as an acknowledgement form where we actually have the client sign off saying at this particular time they’re unaware of any Medicare or Medicaid issues, that they don’t have any of those things so that we know later and while I’ve never had to use it just in case, for some reason I’m notified by Medicare at a later date that my client had it, I can at least show the form showing that I had no idea. So I do provide that as well, as well as another form where we kind of talk about the triaging aspect of what do we do with all of these medical bills and so I’ve created a yet another form and that form kind of goes through what to expect as far as things like, well, what happens to these bills do they go to collections? Well, yeah, most of them will go to collections at some point. So we talk about what we can do to try to prevent any issues with my client’s credit, because I figure if you come in and you sit down and you talk to an attorney part of our job really should be to make sure the client is protected from all the things that can happen and that’s certainly one that when you receive all of these medical bills, if you can’t pay them on time because you’re in an auto accident, they’re going to have concerns about their credit, at least most of my clients do. So I try to help with that.
Sean: And what kinds of things do you talk about as far as credit and bills?
Ashley: So as far as credit and bills go, one thing that we say is that and part of this second agreement is that you agree to allow me to provide a letter of protection to the creditors and so that will generally keep them on hold so they won’t be trying to garnish or attempt to garnish to try to get their money until after I’ve had a conversation with them. But in there in the same time, I can’t guarantee that that’s going to necessarily prevent the process and so there’s another disclaimer that says, well, I’m willing to do this for you and ninety five percent of the time I can stop the process, I can’t guarantee it. But in order to do these things, in order to work out all of these things, I make my clients guarantee I can pay their bills at the end of the case, because the last thing I want to do is you know put my good name on the line and try to help a client and then they decide not to pay. So when we do the distribution, I also issue checks to all the providers, but I think that’s where as attorneys we make I mean, the biggest impact by being able to reduce the amount of these medical bills at the end of the case and so we talk about that. We talk about health insurance, whether or not they have health insurance, whether or not that’s backed by the government, whether or not that’s backed by their employer. So I know whether or not we’re looking at a potential ERISA issue. So and then we talk about, okay, so do we want to go ahead, notify the health insurance carrier regarding the potential for subrogation or whether or not we want to wait and see if they notice us, depending on whether or not it’s ERISA. So we talk about all of that in the first meeting. It’s kind of a mouthful. I talk really fast so I can do this very quickly. But then the last piece in the last stack is that I have a health authorization form for every hospital in the area. And although we send the high-tech medical releases, we also send the original because it’s really hard for a hospital to argue about the validity of their release if you’re signing their release. So, while it may kill an extra tree in the end, I find that that really does streamline the process because I’m not having releases kicked back to my office. So that’s another way that we like to streamline things and then those are sent out immediately. So, if it takes three months to get those records, hopefully we have those and we’re ready to go when the client is done treating.
Sean: And how about following up after the initial meeting with the client afterwards?
Ashley: So I like to touch the client within a week of having met with them and so we send out immediately a thank you letter to them and part of that is that we also like to remind them of pieces of the contract. It is a standard letter. I tell my clients that. But it also includes information like we talked in the first meeting and you said you had this at your home. It’s on that list for them so that they are once again reminded just in case they have forgotten their notes or torn them up what is there. So that I think that really helps because when you send out that thank you letter, you’re kind of reiterating pieces of the contract, but we also reiterate, you know, this is how best to communicate with us and this is how you want to be communicated with and so that way, I know one of the biggest things I hear if I speak with a client after they’ve hired another attorney or they’ve terminated representation is well I can never get a hold of them so I always want to make sure I’ve got that covered.
Sean: And do you cover both in the meeting and maybe afterwards, I know I’ve started doing this social media?
Ashley: I do cover social media.
Ashley: I talk about just remember, at this point forward, anything you do could affect your case and so while you cannot delete anything and you cannot advise that they should delete anything, it is okay to make a social media profile private as well as hopefully deter them from continuing to post about life, especially because one of those silly questions we hear in deposition is have you been on vacation since this accident? So we do like to go ahead and discuss that in our first meeting. We do have paperwork on that as well, kind of like a litigation hold to our client, reminding them of all the tips and tricks as far as making sure you’re taking care of yourself and protecting yourself there, too.
Sean: And how have you found that the intake process and these documents affects the rest of the case and how it proceeds?
Ashley: I think because we do so much in the initial intake, we get all of this information. Once it’s in our system, we can move much more quickly because I have my client sign not only general releases, but the specific ones for different hospitals. We send that out immediately. I would rather be in a position where I have to supplement than I am to be waiting on an entire order. I think that helps keep the process moving along so that when it’s time and my client says I’m finished treating, I want to try to resolve the claim, I have everything ready in the file. So if my client’s done in three months, I can have this to the point where there’s an offer of settlement within four. So I want to make sure that I’m keeping things moving because I think we all know and even for our clients, especially after an accident when they’re frustrated and they’ve lost money because they’ve either been off work or they’ve had to pay out for their vehicle or something else, medications, anything, there’s a time value associated with money. So, the more efficient I can be in trying to resolve the claim, the better off we’re all going to be in the end.
Sean: And talk about regular client follow up based on the intake. I think we’ve talked about communicating the way that they want to be communicated with.
Ashley: Yes. So, when I do my follow ups, a lot of time, it’s one of my staff members. We follow up every three weeks and, in our email, usually it’s an email because I do very heavily push email because it creates such a nice chain for us as far as documentation to the file regarding communication, we always just say, how are you doing? How are you feeling? Have you seen any other doctors? Are you finished treating with any doctors? Because we want to make sure at that point where they say, I have finished with this doctor, I am now ordering those records immediately and so that communication takes just a second. Even with hundreds of clients, it doesn’t take very long to send out that very quick email. Just checking in and honestly, I know that if I was in my client’s position and I was injured, I’d want to know that someone was working for me and so that emails a reminder that we are doing whatever we can to help them.So the last thing in the folder is we started putting practical tips on handling property damage because a lot of times I’ll see a client, I think I see them either at the very beginning, right after they’ve seen their initial medical provider, during the process in which they’re trying to get the vehicle repaired or they’re pretty far down the line and they’ve been trying to work through this themselves and realize it’s gotten too messy. So, for those who haven’t had their vehicle repaired, it includes important information like the replacement of car seats after a collision. If you’ve had a car seat in a collision, it must be replaced. So, things like that, what totaling a vehicle can look like when you have, when you don’t have gap coverage and you still have a loan. So we talk about those things in this practical tips. And I think it helps also keep down the amount of questions that we have about property damage so that the clients can continue to work because what I tell them is, is I’m not taking any type of fee on your property damage. I want you to get your vehicle replaced so that you can continue about your day in your life so.
Sean: And those questions on property damage, you tend to see the same questions over and over.
Ashley: Over and over and I think those are some of the questions that really frustrate people the most because they need a car or they can’t. They find out their vehicles totaled and they have to turn the rental in in 48 hours, what do you do? So those are all things that we like to give them a kind of a Q/A session on so that they can refer to the guide, which says you can do X, Y and Z and it has really helped us. One thing I tell my clients, in addition to monitoring social media, is to write down how you’re feeling. So I think we’ve all seen this in depositions. We have defense counsel sitting there with a stack of records and our clients have been in physical therapy and today say, I feel great. I’m not having any headaches. I slept great last night and then two days later, they feel terrible and so another thing I have done for my clients is I created this little calendar. It’s very small and has little squares. It’s not intimidating and it just says symptoms, activities and expenses. And so, the purpose of that is for my clients that aren’t writers, that don’t journal things. If you had a headache, write it down because you may forget later or it was hard to go to work today because I have to lift over 20 pounds at my job or I work on the line and I do a repetitive movement. Those are things that later we can discuss with the insurance company regarding duties under duress, things my client has to do because they can’t sit around without working, because they can’t afford their life if they do, but it has a value and so the best way to get to that value is to provide the insurance company or to provide defense counsel with handwritten notes from the client. So that’s kind of my way of trying to keep my clients that are intimidated from journals to at least give me something to work with. That’s how I go about the process. After that, I have a variety of letters that go out immediately, one obviously to the insurance carrier if the person has insurance asking them to provide me information regarding that policy. And if it’s a situation where we know there’s probably a policy limits problem to know what those limits are. In addition to that, we send out to the, the UM carrier that also may have med pay. We’ve changed that letter a lot since some of the new tactics that insurance carriers are trying. So the one that we use right now I have found to be pretty successful is one that says that you are not permitted to pay anyone but my client and if you do so, then I will refuse to protect the amount that you pay out. I’ve had that happen a couple of times where I’ve already said in my letter that if for some reason my client has authorized otherwise, this is now specifically it’s revoked and then I’ve had a carrier pay the hospital and I’ve said you need to go back and you need to get a reimbursement for that and when they failed to do so, I said as I said from the very beginning, I won’t protect this and they were required to, they’re required to write it off. So that’s happened a couple times here recently. So, I have very specific language in that initial letter and so we constantly say refer to our initial letter. All medical payments, coverage checks are to be made out jointly to the client and to my law firm so that we can then distribute it as we see fit because the money is not for the hospital, it’s for the client to pay their bills and sometimes we need to pay those bills that are in collections or a lot of times now we have clients with high deductible health care plans and so $5000 is their deductible. So we need to pay the deductible and get that taken care of so the rest of their bills can be paid.
Sean: Yeah, it’s their money. They paid for it.
Ashley: They paid for it. They did and I for the life of me, I still can’t understand how it is that you can pay for a policy and have, have paid for medical payments coverage for five, six, seven years and utilize it once and then they want 100 percent subrogation or reimbursement, especially given that this is a service that the client has already paid for, but nonetheless, we are finding that by providing very specific instructions over and over to the med pay carrier that we are able to prevent these issues where they’ve paid out the entire amount to the hospital and then our clients are left with nothing and then a huge deductible for the rest of their bills.The last thing we do send out along with all of this intake is we send a letter to whomever their primary provider is if they’re seeing a physical therapist. We send it to their they’re seeing a chiropractor, we send it there and the information is very general. It just says that we are representing that we’ll need a copy of everything, but it also gives some information regarding the claim, very generalized information, just saying this is the information we have. We found out that the accident occurred on X date, it looks like the vehicle was totaled or it looks like the vehicle at this point has been repaired. We try to provide that information in the hopes that whomever the provider is that they’re working with primarily will have enough information to know how to best treat based upon what occurred in the accident.
Sean: Ashley, thanks very much for being here on Civilly Speaking.
Ashley: Well, thank you for having me. I am an avid listener. I’m a subscriber so, I was very excited to come in today.
Sean: I was just getting to that. That’s the most important part here. Thanks to all the other listeners out there. If you like our show, check out civillyspeaking.com or please leave us a review on iTunes, that’s where Ashley subscribes, and we’ll see you on the next episode of Civilly Speaking.