I hate unscheduled phone calls, and it has been my mission for years to avoid ever having one. I have partly succeeded, and the freedom from interruptions—including potential clients I cannot help, opposing counsel with questions I am not prepared to answer on the spot, and telemarketers—is liberating.

Here are the various ways I did it.

Don’t answer your phone

The easiest way to avoid unscheduled phone calls is to just stop answering the phone (which may be a good idea, actually). Of course, this is likely to cause other problems, so I don’t recommend it instead, use voicemail to your advantage.

For several years, I fended off calls with a simple voicemail message like the following:

You have reached The Glover Law Firm. Please leave your phone number, email address, and a short message. I return calls at 10 and 3 every day, and I will return your call at that time.

This actually worked really well, but there is at least one important caveat. I did not have a practice area with a lot of competition. My potential clients were unlikely to have a list of consumer lawyers to call if I did not answer the phone. I tested this a few times, and I never found that I was missing out on clients who did not get a human being when they called. Quite the opposite, I found that callers who did not leave messages probably weren’t worth talking to.

This may not be the case for your practice area, especially if you practice in a competitive area. If you practice bankruptcy or criminal law, for example, it is quite possible that you will lose a client if you miss a call.

That leads us to the next option: an answering service.

Get an answering service

An answering service is basically a receptionist. It is a great way to make sure there is always a friendly human being to answer the phone (which a busy lawyer generally is not). I know of two options, Total Attorneys Virtual Receptionist and Call Ruby, that offer slightly different services. I have not used either, but I have explored both in detail.

Total Attorneys is basically a traditional answering service. For about $1 per call, you can forward your calls to Total Attorneys, where someone will answer the phone with your prepared script, take a message, and handle limited appointment scheduling. Total Attorneys is basically a souped-up answering machine, and it is a very good value.

Call Ruby is a virtual receptionist. You pay by the minute (about $1.40-2.00) for a receptionist who you can keep up-to-date on your availability, so that he or she can screen your calls and check with you for further instructions, if you want. If Total Attorneys is like a souped-up answering machine, Call Ruby is closer to a virtual secretary.

Both call centers are U.S.-based (Chicago and Portland), by the way.

If you like the sound of Call Ruby but want more control over your intake process (like I did) consider hiring an assistant, instead.

Hire an assistant

While an answering service is a partial solution to unscheduled phone calls, it is basically one-way. You still have to do the follow-up, even if the caller was a potential client you cannot help. Unlike an answering service, an assistant can take at least some of the follow-up off your plate, too.

Assistants come in two flavors: virtual and in-office.

I had a virtual assistant for about a year, and it was a great experience. Besides answering the phone, Erica managed the intake process from the time we got a call or email to the time we accepted or declined the client. The cost wound up being less than I would have paid Call Ruby, which adds up to $84–240 per hour, and Erica did a great job. People frequently told me how much they enjoyed talking to her, which made my firm look good. Of course, since Erica worked from her home, she could not do all the things I would have liked an assistant to do, such as handling the mail and greeting visitors.

For that, I would have need an in-office assistant. I just couldn’t afford a full-time (or nearly so) employee. If your budget can handle it, your work load requires it, and you have space in your office, hire someone to work from your office. There is so much more you can do when a competent assistant can take the administrative details off your plate. Instead of just phone calls, he or she can handle your mail, greet your visitors, scan your documents, and more.

Enjoy the lack of interruptions

The phone is an interruption device. Communication is something it does almost incidentally. While you can be your own receptionist, your time is much better spent getting things done, which means scheduling your calls so they do not interrupt you while you are doing work.

To eliminate the interruptions, put something between you and the ringer, whether it is voicemail, an answering service, or an assistant. Enjoy greater productivity as a result. (Now if only you could get rid of your co-workers who wander into your office all the time. I’ll keep thinking on that one.)

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/furryscalyman/1034889957/)