What To Do When Your Client Calls Too Much

phone-callsIt is a common lament among lawyers: “Clients constantly call and ask me the same questions. I’m tired of having to repeat myself. What can I do?” The answer lies in understanding and managing clients’ anxiety, communicating proactively, and training clients.

Criminal cases, divorce, and lawsuits are all stressful and can affect the client’s entire life, family or business. This creates anxiety which can result in repeated calls. But these calls are a gift—an opportunity to develop client loyalty. Clients who call constantly are engaged and looking to you for answers. Instead of treating these calls as a nuisance, see what you can learn from them and how you can improve your service.

Think Like Your Client

Every client is different.  While one client may be content to hand a matter over and trust you to report back to them when something significant occurs, another client facing the same legal situation may require constant reassurance – especially if nothing is happening.

Constant client calls can occur if the client feels that the time between communications is too long, because they are emotional and need some hand-holding or a sympathetic ear, because the client is so stressed that they can’t retain information, or because they just don’t understand you, but are afraid to admit it.

Communicate Proactively

Set up a secure extranet or website (such as Basecamp), where clients can log in and see documents and status updates any time, anywhere without needing to contact you. Post updates on a regular schedule (ex: Every Monday, every two weeks, etc.) and more often as significant events occur in the case.

Develop a system to update clients regularly not only by phone, but also in writing, regardless of whether anything significant has occurred since the last communication with the client. The client will appreciate that you’re thinking of them and keeping them up to date, and they’ll be reassured that you haven’t forgotten about them or dropped the ball.

Use simple sentences and layman’s terms instead of legal jargon.  Ensure that the client understands important points, deadlines and legal concepts by asking the client to rephrase what you said an repeat it back to you – don’t just ask them if they understand.

Train Your Clients

No matter how you communicate, you’ll need to ‘train’ clients. Establish communication policies from the very beginning of the engagement. Find out whether the client prefers telephone calls, emails or regular mail (or some combination). Determine the best times and communications methods for your client, and tell them the best ways to reach you.

Set clients’ expectations regarding your availability. Clients who call at odd hours and receive an immediate response directly from you will get used to reaching you whenever and wherever they want, even if the matter is not urgent.

Don’t answer your own phone. If a client call does not require your legal expertise, let a staff person respond. If the client needs to speak with you about a non-urgent matter, return the call later. You’ll have less interruptions while still meeting the client’s needs.

Prepare for New Clients

Give the client the names, positions and contact information for others in your office with whom they will be interacting. Introduce them to the client to establish familiarity and rapport.

Create a ‘client welcome package’ which includes the communication policy and other firm procedures and policies and definitions of legal terms. Supply a guide outlining the steps involved with information or time lines so that clients will know when to expect progress, and what kind. While you may not be able to predict specific dates or times, you can tell clients what the law requires and what the general practice is in your area.

Setting clients’ expectations at the outset of the engagement, supplying written information and employing proactive communication practices can help combat client anxiety and reduce calls, but some hand holding just goes with the ‘trusted advisor’ territory. Consider it a cost of doing business.

(photo: darwinbell)

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  • I like the extranet idea. However, many of my clients would be intimidated by using the web. In the mean time. Great advice!

  • Gerry Oginski

    Excellent advice. Every lawyer has experienced this scenario multiple times in their career. You are correct that you must ‘train’ your clients regarding when they can and cannot call you.

    I tell all of my clients that when I leave the office, they can call the office and their call will be forwarded to my cell after hours. I have to say that 99% of my clients never call me after hours, even when they know they can reach me late in the evening. Once in a blue moon a distraught client needs to be reassured. Thankfully, I have not had any clients abuse this privilege.

    Regarding the ‘Welcome kit’ ; the more information you give them, the better they feel.

    Gerry

  • Some practice areas definitely need to take after-hours calls. Some of the wisest lawyers I know have an after-hours fee for phone calls from clients. For example, every call after 8 p.m. may be charged at $250.

    In fact, this is a good approach to all difficult clients. If you are facing a difficult one, quote them a price that would make you happy to represent them.

  • Excellent article, Allison. I especially like your suggestions about the client welcome package.

    I also suggest that lawyers set aside at least one hour of sacred productivity time each day during which they don’t accept calls. They can give their assistant instructions to tell clients that they are “behind closed doors” and will be available from 11am to 12pm (for instance) to return calls. The assistant can ask at what number they can be reached at that time, or set an appointment for them to talk later in the day.

  • Ugh! Great advice. When I first started out, I had a client that came to visit me 2-3 times per week. He needed a lot of training. Proactive communication truly is the key. Keep a consistent and open line of communication.

  • Debra, I love your concept of ‘sacred productivity time.’ I may even have to steal that term. I work a lot with my clients on how they are managing their activities and how they can be more productive with the time that they have, and I often advocate ‘no call zones’ so that focused work can be done. Interruptions are productivity killers, whether they come from clients, colleagues or others.

  • Peaches

    I love this information that you have provided. I have tried to place myself in the shoes of some of my clients and you are right, if you answer their telephone calls on non urgent matters, they will keep doing it. I love this article. Thank you.

  • CSH

    Some helpful tips with annoying clients:

    1. If you do an intake and your client seems needy, annoying, will call you too much, or otherwise be a problem in the future, NEVER EVER EVER agree to a flat fee. A flat fee is a hidden invitation to call 24/7. And I mean 24/7. After the first few billing cycles filled with .1 and .2 hours for phone calls, they will get the message. If they don’t they will get the message when their retainer is eaten up by phone calls. And the beauty of this is those are bills that you can prove. Then you can tell them “I estimated that this case would take X amount to finish but because of your incessant need to call me I require an additional retainer to handle the more important legal aspects of your case.”

    2. Provide your legal secretary/paralegal with a spread sheet every week of the worst clients who call all the time for no reason but for “status updates” and wanting to vent. The State Bar of California Rules of Professional Conduct indicate that the client must be made aware case updates but it doesn’t have to be the attorney. If your secretary keeps routing you the call saying “Mr. Jones, line 1” then fire your secretary.

    3. Put your communication policies in your attorney client agreement. That way, there’s a better likelihood that you can get out of a case if the case has proceeded to litigation if your client keeps calling.

    4. Don’t wait until the last minute to fire a client and do it in writing! Make sure you have no statute of limitations issues before you disengage. A colleague of mine “orally” told a client to “seek another attorney” instead of doing it in writing. Less than 2 months before the statute of limitations ran, she came back, told him that she couldn’t find another lawyer and that he was obligated to do her case. And she was correct.