An interesting idea. Before you jump in, consider the following:
Chat tends to be more in depth than speaking to potential clients by phone. For best practice purposes, assume you are forming an attorney-client relationship.
Consider writing disclaimers you can copy and paste into chat at the end of your conversation. Make your nonengagement clear if ending the chat concludes your legal services. This is critical if the client contacts you about a matter that typically has a deadline associated with it, whether the client mentions it or not. Also be careful if the chat results in scheduling an appointment. Get the client’s contact information so you can confirm your meeting by email and provide your street address, directions, and phone number. Yes, the client can get these details from your website, but it is more convenient to include them with the appointment confirmation. If the client doesn’t keep the appointment, send a nonengagement email.
Besides running a conflict check before chat begins, remember to add the potential client to your conflict system so you have a record of the contact.
Protect client confidentiality and consider saving the chat record. Since chat software allows you to print the conversation, one choice is to print to PDF and save the PDF as you would in-person consultation notes and intake forms.
Lastly, some practical pointers:
As this post intimates, chat has the potential of being a time suck. Plan accordingly.
First, know your analytics: peak times when new clients are most likely to call, email, or send a contact form through your website. If possible, chat (meaning you) should be available during prime time.
Whatever your chat hours are, make them clear or potential clients will quickly get frustrated.
If you are only willing to chat for a set amount of time, disclose this limitation up front. Each lawyer will have a different sensibility about length of time. I may be channeling my inner “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” but 5 minutes seems too short, 10 could be okay, somehow 15 minutes feels just right.
Keep your eye on the goal. While you might build good karma helping someone by chat who will tell his buddies how wonderful you are, the idea is to convert a potential client into an actual client. Remember to use this tool as you would a phone consult: to qualify or eliminate someone from being a client as quickly and economically as possible.
Finally, don’t be afraid to experiment. As my husband is fond of saying, first you don’t know, then you know. If chat hours or chat limitations change, just update your website.