Lawyers Texting Clients, Srsly

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In 2010, Americans sent 2.1 trillion text messages. That’s up from 81 billion in 2005. Text messaging has become a veritable phenomenon in instantaneous communication. But is it a useful tool for lawyers? We discussed texting your clients a few years ago, but since then, text messaging has become even more prevalent. Now it may be time for attorneys to embrace the text.

The Problems

Patrick Oden accurately summarizes the main points against text messaging with clients:

  1. Short messages are easily misconstrued
  2. Text messages are not easily preserved
  3. Short messages cannot convey enough information to the client (or from the client to the lawyer)
  4. Text messaging is scary and unfamiliar technology
  5. Text messaging grants the client too much access and too-immediate of access to the attorney

I would add that if you haven’t embraced an alternative billing method, keeping track of the time you spend texting could also be difficult. Although if you’re spending more than six minutes sending a text, you either need to start using T9, or pick up the phone and call.

The Worst Meaning

Misreading the tone in a message is inevitable. I believe that people often read the worst possible tone into text messages and e-mails. The key to fixing this when texting with your clients is keeping the discussions away from any serious discussion. For instance, texting about a bill dispute is probably not the best idea. But reminding your client what time court starts is fair game.

Keeping Records

Preservation is definitely an issue with text messages. Unlike e-mails, texts can’t easily be printed off and placed into a paper client file. If you have a smartphone, you could take a screen capture of the text message and retain that. With most smartphones you can easily export these texts to a file, either using built-in or third-party software. Oden makes a good point though: if you’re not transcribing all of your telephone calls, how much different is it to lose the record of a text message? Like a telephone call, you can easily make a note in your client file about the text conversation.

Substance vs. Length

How much information should you include, and what kind of questions should you answer in a text message? These kinds of ground rules need to be laid out in advance. Talk to your clients up front. If they want to be able to text you, and want you to text them, then that’s fine. But let them know what kinds of things you’re comfortable answering in that format. Maybe you only want to use text messaging to work out logistical things like your next meeting or phone call. It might only be used as a reminder about court dates. Or maybe you’re comfortable answering more substantive questions. Obviously the more substantive the question, the more potential for problems. To avoid misunderstandings, be clear up front. Let your clients know that if you aren’t comfortable answering something over text message, you may ask them to schedule a call or come in for a meeting.

If you’re scared of text messaging, you’ve probably got a few other technology issues to deal with before you jump this hurdle.

What About Your Free Time?

Once you establish a texting relationship with your clients, that level of open access can definitely be a concern. If you set the right expectations though, you can make sure that you don’t offend anyone or risk losing clients. Couch your limitations in terms of respect for the client’s issues. It’s great if they think of an important question at nine o’clock on a Saturday night. But do they really want you giving an off-the-cuff response right away? You can respond and let them know you’ll need to look into the issue, and you will get back to them. Just be sure to send some response. Otherwise people tend to think you’re either ignoring them or didn’t get the message.

The Benefits

I see attorneys use texting regularly to talk with their clients. From talking to them, it seems the most prevalent use is scheduling. If the client is employed, they often can’t talk on the phone during business hours. So the attorneys use texting to set up meetings and confirm court appearances.

Daniel Marchese, a young-looking lawyer, describes how his use of texting helps him stay above his competition:

I always ask my clients if they would mind if I corresponded with them by e-mail or text message. Most welcome the offer. I can respond to e-mails and texts anywhere. I give my clients instantaneous attention. Of course, I am always careful to protect my clients’ privacy when using mobile devices. My clients often come to expect this level of attention and are grateful for it. Indeed, communicating in this way can show that you are quick to act, but thoughtfully decisive at the same time, two traits that clients want and expect out of a more seasoned lawyer. Communicating with clients via e-mail and text message also enables me to develop a rapport with clients . . . .

Do you use text messaging with clients? Do you place any rules on the interactions? Let’s hear about it in the comments.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/danzen/4137160631/)

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  • Esteban

    I use Google voice to send text messages. That way I have a record of the text I sent, the date, etc.

  • Mike

    As mentioned in the article, I use it for scheduling purposes. “I’m in your lobby” or “Is now a good time to talk”.

    For giving legal advice, for anything substantive, no.

  • Frankly, I feel somewhat uncomfortable getting text messages from client’s for the following reasons: 1) They will text at all hours of day or night, 2) The nature of texting is abbreviated creating a HUGE opportunity for lack of clarity and room for misinterpretation, & 3) Inability [with my present billing system] to be compensated for time and advice texted while out-of-office. Having said this, I will often get texts from clients as I return a lot of calls from my cell phone, and I’ve disabled my “blocked-call” feature, as I otherwise wouldn’t get through to most clients.

    • How do you respond when you get those texts?

  • The other problems I see with texting clients are the problems created by texting in general – the distraction they create and the immediate reponse expectation. You mention this with the idea of the limitations imposed on a person’s free time, but texting holds the same subconscious threat of distracting from other business that e-mail or a full voicemail box can. Of course, as professionals we should all be accustomed to prioritizing, but the risk is that an important text will get missed by being “lost in the shuffle”, or an unimportant one will inturrupt other business.

    Text messages are a distraction while performing daily functions, such as driving, meeting with other clients, eating dinner with family, or composing documents in the office. No matter what business you are conducting at the moment, the subconscious knowledge that a text is waiting to be answered can put pressure to rush through the business at hand to attend to the pending message.

    I would warn professionals of any type to be wary of this mode of communication, as it creates an atmosphere, expectation, and feeling of immediate response. Sometimes the client’s message can (and has to) wait, even if the client doesn’t think so. By making a client wait – even as a necessity – they may feel slighted or ignored and become upset. People are accustomed to immediate reponses to texts, and when it doesn’t happen, emotions can run high. It’s a delicate balance, and one that may add one more layer of difficulty to daily business.