Law Firm Gatekeepers Keeping Clients, Opportunities Out


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Gatekeepers can be an essential element in ensuring that you remain productive and limit interruptions, but overly aggressive gatekeepers can hurt your practice without you even knowing it. They could be turning away clients, blocking business opportunities or preventing referrals. This post gives three examples I encountered over the past several weeks in which lawyers lost (or almost lost) an opportunity as a result of overzealous gatekeepers

Business Opportunity (Almost) Thwarted

One of my clients recently called another lawyer about a confidential business opportunity. He did not want others in the lawyer’s firm to know about it and did not feel comfortable disclosing it to the secretary who answered the telephone. At the time the call was made, my client had already discussed the opportunity with the lawyer in person and they had exchanged a number of emails. The purpose of the call was to confirm an appointment to discuss it further.

My client identified himself and his firm name, but the secretary insisted on knowing what the call was about before she would put him through to the lawyer. When my client indicated that the call was about an appointment scheduled for Thursday, the secretary wanted to know what appointment that was (most likely because it was not on the lawyer’s calendar, since it was confidential). Finally, exasperated, my client said, “We’re supposed to go duck hunting and I want to make sure he brings his decoy.” The secretary didn’t know how to respond to that, so she just put him through. But my client could just as easily have given up and brought his business opportunity elsewhere.

I have heard of numerous similar stories from professionals over the years. When attempting to contact a lawyer to refer business, well-intentioned gatekeepers have prevented the calls from reaching the lawyer, and frustrated potential clients or referral sources give up and refer their business elsewhere. And the worst part? The lawyer never knows about it.

Press Request Blocked

Another of my clients, a solo attorney, employs a popular service to help answer her phone when she is in court or otherwise unavailable. The service, in an attempt to help the lawyer avoid sales calls, screens out what they deem to be ‘solicitations.’ Unfortunately, the service has recently screened out calls from a large, well-known legal publication who was seeking a quote for an article as ‘solicitations,’ preventing my client from getting some free PR.

Potential Client Gets Away

One final example from a friend who told me that she had recently contacted a lawyer’s office and inquired about some legal work she needed performed. She was transferred to a staff person who pleasantly answered her questions, but never offered to transfer my friend to an attorney or attempted to schedule an appointment for my friend to come into the office. My friend was not asked for her name or contact information, so there was no way the firm could follow up with her. There was no offer to send her information and she was not even pointed to a website for further information.

In short, a potential client, ready to hire a lawyer that does exactly the kind of work this firm does and willing to pay was essentially turned away. And once again, the lawyers are none the wiser.

Is this happening in your firm? Is your staff (whether in-house or outsourced) leaving money on the table?

Train Your Staff

An exceptional client experience begins with the very first interaction.

It is imperative that you train those who provide the first impression of your firm. You know who they are; they answer your telephone or greet people when they arrive at your office. While it is important for these ‘gatekeepers’ to obtain information so that you can provide better service to them when you meet with them, take or return their calls, you must accept that sometimes people who call your office will not be comfortable speaking with an unknown staff member about their private affairs.

Although you may want to screen out solicitations or sales calls, if you rely on your staff to do that screening for you, they must be trained to tell the difference between a solicitation and a potential opportunity. Admittedly, sometimes it is difficult to tell. If you are not sure that your staff can tell the difference, or if they are unsure when speaking with someone, you might suggest that they put the call through to your voice mail so that they can leave a message. Most of the time, callers with a legitimate purpose will have no problem leaving a message. Often, those who are calling purely to sell you something will refuse to leave a message. In all cases, the caller should be asked to leave their name, company name and telephone number.



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  • It’s true when you say the gatekeepers are often well intentioned (usually). They most likely believe they’re doing the right thing by keeping sales calls from bothering the attorney. In reality, though, gatekeepers should be very, very well trained in customer experience. That’s essentially the type of attitude they should take.

  • Leanna

    I have stopped referring to an attorney here in town because of her gatekeeping. Clients that I have tried to refer to her have reported back that they are unable to get through her “system” and when I was trying to help a client in a rush I didn’t hear back for several days. When I asked the Client Liaison why she hadn’t simply replied that the attorney was busy and would be unable to help me she said it “wasn’t her place” to do that.

    It’s sad because this attorney is good and I often have a need to refer to someone in her practice areas, but the walls she puts up are too high. And, yes, I have brought this to her attention to no avail.

  • what drives me nuts is the law firms who just answer in a 50 year old smoker voice. “law office”

  • Excellent article Allison, and a valid point. For some of us the sales calls seem unending. I get 5-6 phone calls each day from leasing agents, stockbrokers, legal directory representatives, etc. Fortunately I’ve had the same receptionist for 23 years, and she’s very good at screening those calls, and sending them to my voice mail. When she isn’t sure about a caller, she asks me.

    As you said, having a gatekeeper is OK, but he or she must be properly trained.

  • Very good point. I’m early in my trial period with Call Ruby (and loving it), and right after I edited your post, I changed my reception procedures to make sure anyone asking for me by name could get through to me.