I Stopped Taking Client Calls

the-shingle-life

I recently downloaded and read Alexis Neely’s Law Business Manifesto. It’s an interesting approach. Of course it is written like a marketing piece, because it is, but there are still some gems. I’ll be doing a full review soon, but in the meantime I’ve started implementing one of her strategies: not taking unscheduled phone calls.

Neely advocates going cold turkey and not taking any unscheduled phone calls. If I had a full-time assistant or virtual paralegal I might be able to get away with that. But I use Ruby, so they can’t schedule calls for me. I also do a lot of work with county agencies and police officers. Most of them leave for the day by 4:30. I’ve found that the inevitable phone tag when I don’t take those calls is brutal. That means my instructions to Ruby are to only let those types of calls through. Every other call gets returned in a designated window.

I’ve only had the system in place for a few days. It took a little while to make sure the ladies over at Ruby knew what I wanted. And of course we had to work out a few “what if” scenarios. But now that everyone is on the same page, the system seems to be working without any kinks.

Miss Calls Without Guilt

When we first opened our firm, we got a thrill every time the phone rang. But now that we’ve built up our client base, the phone rings a lot. Of course it’s not just clients. It’s opposing counsel, officers, and so forth. But the phone rings constantly.

Some of that stopped when we first hired Ruby. The phone still rang, but we could screen the calls and only deal with those we wanted to handle at the time. If we didn’t take the call, clients were told we would get back to them. There was no assurance about when. We tried to get back to them within a day or so, but sometimes messages got lost or forgotten.

Now as soon as an e-mail comes in we can schedule the call and put it on the calendar.

Assure Clients They’re Important

When Ruby tells people I will call them at a specific time, they’re assured that the call is important. The client knows the message won’t get lost in the shuffle. Instead, he or she will get a guarantee that I will return the call in a specific time window.

Moreover, the client understands that their time with me is important. They get the message that when I’m talking to them there will be no other distractions, like other clients calling in.

Save Everyone Time

In the Manifesto, Neely points out that when you stop answering the phone, it will “eliminate the phone tag, thereby saving [the clients] time & a whole lot of frustration.” But more importantly, it saves me time. It also cuts down on Ruby minutes. If someone called before and I missed the call, Ruby would take a message. I would see the message and return the call. At least four times out of ten, the person wouldn’t answer. Then they would call back minutes later and have to explain to Ruby who they are all over again. Now they just call once and they know when I’m going to call back.

Bask in Your Productive Glory

When Sam said he doesn’t take unscheduled calls, I didn’t see the point. But after reading the Manifesto I decided to just give it a shot. Like I said, it’s only been a few days, but I’ve already felt much more productive. I don’t get interrupted by the phone nearly as much. And when I make the scheduled call backs, people answer the phone expecting my call.

A Bit of Caution

When we made this switch there were a few people whose calls hadn’t been scheduled and their messages took longer to respond to than we normally like. If you decide to try this method, make sure to let clients know in advance if possible. I told clients for a week beforehand that we would be moving to the new system. And any clients that I call this week for their first scheduled call get an explanation of the new system.

Depending on your schedule, this system may mean later nights in the office. That’s what I’ve found. With my court schedule I’m usually in and out of court for most of the day. That means the only guaranteed time to call clients back is after five. As a result I’m essentially guaranteeing that on most nights I will stay late.

  • http://viviancrodriguez.com Vivian Rodriguez

    I adopted this after reading her manifesto. Like you, I often have to do this out of regular hours, but in my case it’s usually before 9 since only 1 of the judges in our family division has a calendar before 9:00 am.

    I think this works extremely well for the clients and us. They are assured of a call back, as opposed to wondering when the call will be returned. We do have a reputation for never returning phone calls; at least that’s been my experience when I take over cases or help other lawyers with their hearing/trials, which means contact with their clients. For us, it does free us from the tyranny of the phone.

  • http://fishtownlaw.com/ Jordan Rushie

    Did Alexis every run a real, actual law practice? If not, why would you take advice from her?

    Before switching to Alexis’s system, did you pose this system to a bona fide and successful criminal defense lawyer with actual experience at client intake and management…?

    Our phone system is setup exactly like the phone system at the law firm where I worked as an associate. We have an auto-attendnant and two direct dials. Our phone system probably costs around $80 a month. When I want to chat with my former boss, I call his direct. If he doesn’t want to talk to me, he’s got caller ID and lets it go to voicemail. Like a big boy. That is how just about every other lawyer I know does it – including top trial attorneys, partners in biglaw, and just about everyone else I know.

    But… let me get this straight. You’re spending $500 a month on Ruby, plus whatever the phone service costs, plus all the time and management of setting up this system. All because you are too undisciplined and impulsive not to answer calls you don’t want to take? What about a client who wants to ask you a quick question, or a referral source who wants to know if you have some type of form document?

    If you’re inaccessible, they are going to call someone else.

    But enjoy all your new free time. I suspect you’ll have a lot more.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      I’ve scheduled phone calls for most of my practice, and it has worked very well for me. I started by just letting everything go to voicemail, but eventually I decided that was standoffish, and I hired an assistant. Then I tried Ruby. (I never even considered a phone tree. Phone trees aren’t standoffish, they are like telling potential clients to F— off!.) In every instance, we let callers know when they would get a response, and we always responded when we said we would. I think it’s important to set expectations, no matter how you handle phone calls.

      (And whether or not Josh did, I definitely talked about my call scheduling with other lawyers, before and after I implemented it.)

      Important caveat: I did not handle the kinds of cases where potential clients would hang up and call another lawyer if they did not get a human being. We tested this numerous times. Every time, we found that picking up the phone ourselves did not result in more clients. We got more clients (and better ones) by having a friendly receptionist screen calls than by answering the phone ourselves.

    • http://viviancrodriguez.com Vivian Rodriguez

      I guess I’m fortunate that I’ve never practice criminal law. Nor do I need to ask other family lawyers how they do because I already do some things differently–like charging for the initial consultation, which many others don’t. That also frees up time.

      Like Sam, I’ve discovered that answering the phone immediately doesn’t lead to getting clients, let alone better clients. Plus, the caller who just needs an answer right now or will go to another lawyer is not the client I want because I will not be at their beck and call after they become clients–after hiring a lawyer, these are usually the same clients who can’t breathe unless the lawyer tells them it’s okay…again, not my client.

      As for freeing up time, yeah it does. I can talk to those clients that do expect my call without charging them, something else that the other lawyers who bill hourly usually don’t do; or run down to the Clerk to see why their shiny new e-filing portal is giving me a hard time on this one, particular case. And yeah, some of my “free” time is spent with my family or even doing things I enjoy. I can afford to…because at the end of the day, every day, my clients have gotten my undivided attention since I’m not wasting my time answering the calls of price shoppers, or playing therapist.

      I don’t think my time is more valuable. I do think it is just as valuable, particularly when I have more than one client (which is fortunately the case) with whom I share my time. I also don’t subscribe to the theory that in becoming a lawyer I became, essentially, a doormat to the needs of any client, that my life stops.

      I don’t care whether Alexis ever practiced law. I took some of her suggestions, took a look to see if they could work for me, implemented them, kept track, kept what seemed to work and threw out the rest. Clients like getting my cell phone number, along with the clear understanding that I don’t work Saturdays, Sundays or Holidays.

  • http://fishtownlaw.com/ Jordan Rushie

    Also, I am glad Alexis taught you that your time is much more valuable than that of your clients, and that you agree with her.

    I’m sure your clients deeply appreciate your sentiment.

  • Jon

    Alexis is great…but I wouldn’t pay for her products. She has some great ideas and I would say some gems in there but nothing I’ve seen can’t be done without paying for her services. Reading the manifesto and applying it is a great example; no monthly fees, etc. I say this because I worked at a firm where the loyalty to Alexis was actually a drag to the firm. At one point the office manager (who happened to be the managing partner’s non-attorney wife which is an entire separate can of worms) asked me if we should renew or not with Alexis. My view was the hundreds and hundreds of dollars we were throwing at Alexis each month wasn’t worth it because anything she came up with were things we could do on our own. Of course my advise went unheeded. A year later I’m at another firm and friends from that firm say that they finally got the courage to cut of Alexis. Poor Alexis…such great ideas but I always ask myself…if they are such great ideas why is she not raking it in as an attorney rather than a sales-person?

  • http://jdblogger.com John Skiba

    A while back I started implementing this system when it came to phone calls from opposing counsel in my litigation matters. Early on in my career I realized that often when another attorney called me it was only after they had reviewed the file and prepared for the discussion. However, I was taking the call cold without any time to prepare and in no position to make decisions. I have found it particularly helpful in those situations to have a staff person find out what they want to talk about and then schedule a time to talk.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      I frequently encountered the same thing. I just got comfortable saying “I’m not prepared to discuss that right now; can we schedule a call for [time]?”

  • Joe

    As a counterpoint to this, we got a new client last week. It turns out he found us through Google. We actually appeared on the second page of search results (which is probably a separate issue). He hired us over the phone after a discussion of his issue and how we could help. When I asked why he chose us over the entire first page of Google results, he told me it was because we were the first people to actually pick up the phone and speak to him.

  • http://consumerlawyer.mn/cgi-sys/suspendedpage.cgi Randall Ryder

    I think this is a tough issue for any solo to deal with. But I also think it’s easier (and cheaper) to follow Jordan’s method. That’s essentially the same system I use. If the phone rings and I can answer it, I answer it. If I’m busy, I let it go to voicemail.

    I understand the productivity concerns, and I’m also a firm believer in using a system that works for you. That said, I would be sure the time you are saving is worth the cost of the service, and the “cost” of the time you spend managing the service and scheduling the follow up calls.

    • Martin

      Don’t you hate voicemail?

      I hate voicemail as a caller and I hate to listen to my own voicemail …

  • Martin

    What’s Ruby?

  • Kevin Fine

    I have used the “phone appointment” idea for a couple years, after reading it in some time management book (maybe by Dan Kennedy). I am much better at keeping appointments than taking cold calls or returning phonecalls, so I I live up to expectations better with this approach. I actually have a written explanation of how I handle these calls in the materials I give my clients at the beginning of representation. It works great for me, and my clients tell me they are fine with it. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, so at times I don’t strictly follow the method–and almost always live to regret it.

  • http://www.nicholsonlegalservices.com/ Glynis Nicholson

    This is how I handle my calls.

    I primarily started doing it because there are some people who call no matter what.

    They get an idea, they call. They read an email from you, they call.

    By not answering the second that the phone rings, I can keep my thought-process going on what I am working on; and those who do not respect my time, soon learn that they HAVE to most likely leave a message as I most likely will not be available.

    Callers who really want help and sincerely desire your services, leave messages to get a call back.

    Just give it time, you will see that it works.

    Glynis Nicholson

  • Josh Friedman

    At least you guys are consistent in providing bad advice. Please feel free to forward your unscheduled client calls to my office.

  • http://fishtownlaw.com leo

    If I have a client call me with a criminal matter and I don’t call back immediately, that client calls another attorney, and I lose business.

    I can’t see this working if you want criminal clients who need immediate help.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      Right. It’s not a good idea for bankruptcy lawyers, either.

      • Josh Friedman

        It’s not a good idea for any lawyers–except those who don’t want to make a living.

        • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

          Now you’re just being ridiculous. Scheduling phone calls can work just fine for many practices. See my comment above.

      • Josh Friedman

        And we all know that the great maven Alexis Neely, who is the source for this wisdom, did so well with her business that she filed for bankruptcy, don’t we?

        • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

          First, Alexis is not remotely the first person to suggest scheduling phone calls.

          Second, the idea isn’t good or bad just because Alexis — or anyone else — advocates it.

          • static

            Don’t blame Josh Friedman for bringing up Neely’s bankruptcy (and be happy he didn’t bring up her posts about orgasmic meditation). Since Josh Camson promoted her as the source of his idea, it’s fair game. If he is going to suggest anyone pay her any mind, than they ought to know that their guru was such a fabulous businesswoman that she went bankrupt.

            If that’s who they want to follow, then fine, but no reason to conceal it. Or is there?

            • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

              You forgot marrying a shaman at Burning Man.

              Alexis has done just about everything she can to make it impossible to take her seriously. I can’t blame anyone who doesn’t. But the simple fact that she recommends something doesn’t make it a bad idea. Just as the simple fact that Scott Greenfield recommends something doesn’t make it a good idea.

              • http://fishtownlaw.com/ Jordan Rushie

                Except that Scott Greenfield has run a bona fide criminal defense practice for like 30 years, so what he says is kinda worth listening to.

                In contrast, Alexis got a JD, went to Burning Man, and declared bankruptcy recently, the timing of which was apparently determined by an astrologist.

                It’s the difference between asking for gym advice from the fat guy behind the counter at GNC and a bodybuilder.

                • static

                  Nobody, Greenfield or Neely, is above scrutiny, which is why Josh Friedman was right to bring up her bankruptcy. Don’t let Sam’s shifting the point away from Neely distract you.

                  The argument that Greenfield is ugly too doesn’t make Neely less ugly. It’s a fairly common argument used by young lawyers that fails to comport with basic logic.

    • static

      IIRC, Josh Camson is also a new criminal defense lawyer. But I guess you’re talking about retained clients, Leo. It’s very different when the client actually pays you.

      • http://fishtownlaw.com Leo

        A potential criminal defense client calls me, and I miss that call, I lose a client. They need help NOW. If I don’t answer, they call another lawyer.

        • http://lawyerist.com/author/gyitsakalakis/ Gyi Tsakalakis

          This.

    • Gregory Luce

      WTF? Who says he’s not takingany phone calls? As a criminal lawyer, don’t you go to court, y’know, on occasion? Who takes the call then? Or maybe you ask the judge to be excused for a moment so you can call someone back so you don’t lose the business? Hmmm.

      Someone takes the call. In Josh’s case it’s a service. In your case it may be voicemail, in someone else’s case it may be a secretary, receptionist, underemployed lawyer, or maybe yourself if you are not already occupied. All lawyers–hey, most folks who work for a living—make decisions every day whether to “take” a call. It’s how that call is taken that matters, not that you don’t take it at all.

      I don’t get the vehemence against this “system,” nor do I really understand what’s so unique, trendy, or cool about it (though, I guess, the headline is misleadingly provocative). Your receptionist is a service called Ruby, not a person sitting ten yards outside your office. Big deal, at least so long as you return the phone calls. You do do that, don’t you?

  • http://viviancrodriguez.com/ Vivian Rodriguez

    I think there is a misunderstanding somewhere regarding this post and the comments on the part of those who say it is a bad idea.

    Not taking calls is like anything else that is posted on this blog or anywhere else: it may or may not work for some lawyers; it is not a silver bullet of any kind. I don’t think Camson is saying this is a silver bullet, and neither am I in my comments.

    For myself, I am not out to convince anyone that they should or should not try it–all I am saying it works for me to screen and schedule calls. But all I do is family law, that’s it. I have no clue if it will work in criminal law, bankruptcy, PI, whatever. If I wanted to make a living out of answering the phone and just taking calls, I would work at a call center, really…I would.

  • http://gerslaw.com/home/ Todd Gers

    I have been receiving the barrage of Alexis Neely emails for awhile and listened to a few of her “webinars.” I know this is slightly off topic, but what is your take on her and her “program.” I could use the ideas, but am very skeptical of the program and its costs. Basically, I really don’t believe most of what she says because it is all designed to get you to sign up for some expensive program. How the hell can she claim to teach estate planning commanding premium fees when every state has different laws and all markets have distinctive variations. Has anyone used her program? I would be very interested to hear your thoughts.

    As for not answering the phone, I either answer it or it goes to voicemail depending on the caller id. I am looking into something like Ruby or simple phone answering at my executive office suite (for an additional cost of course).

    Thanks,
    Todd Gers
    Metro Detroit

    • http://viviancrodriguez.com Vivian Rodriguez

      I did buy one of her programs but not for estate planning because I have no interest in that; and I certainly didn’t pay “thousands of dollars”. I think she teaches you a system for marketing estate planning that is not exactly related to the substantive forms (think civil procedure in law school, and then your state providing the substance for those rules. As far as I can tell she has a franchise for estate planning which essentially involves marketing; there is one lawyer a county over who has a testimonial for her estate planning thing. I believe she may have another, newer one for being a lawyer to small businesses but I’m not sure. I didn’t look too much into that.

      There were parts of the material that I didn’t really consider because I wanted to do something different. But one thing that I did tweak is charging for the first consultation before people actually schedule the appointment–and I don’t charge the token $100 dollars that some lawyers in my area charge; I charge what used to be my hourly rate in 2011 (they get as much time as they need, not just an hour). I paid about $1200 for the program; it’s more than paid for itself. The conversion to clients on those has been very good.

      Her stuff, like anything else takes, an investment of you time, not just money. It’s just a system, if you can find another one that you think might work better, consider that one.