Personal Productivity for Lawyers
This quick-start guide to Getting Things Done and Inbox Zero also includes two shortcuts for those who want the benefits of GTD without having to learn the system.
Lawyers be warned: unreturned phone calls can lead to bar complaints.
You don’t have to be lazy or incompetent to get into trouble over phone calls. You might just be busy, but that won’t save you.
Here are my tricks for saving time on client calls. Though my techniques were developed in a litigation practice, they apply to most types of clients and their lawyers. Even lawyers who bill for phone calls have good reasons for keeping calls infrequent, short, and effective.
Make Calls Less Frequent
Manage your office in a way that makes it less likely your clients will call. Never actively discourage phone calls — as you will see, I do the opposite. Instead, give your clients fewer reasons to call in the first place.
Keep Your Clients Regularly Informed
The more critical a client considers a legal matter, the more she is likely to worry that you have forgotten about it. To get reassurance, she will call.
If you regularly keep clients informed about their case, such calls will be less frequent. Develop a plan for regularly updating your clients, and stick to it. Though keeping clients informed is an ethical duty, the rules do not prescribe the frequency or method of your updates. Consider the nature of your practice, the type of matter, and the needs of your individual clients.
Remember to actually inform your clients when you update them. Otherwise, you might invite more phone calls. Lawyers who just send copies of pleadings without explanation are probably adding to their clients’ distress and all but asking for them to call for an explanation.
Train Staff to Handle Calls
Lawyers with large caseloads can still provide their clients with high-quality service by training secretaries and paralegals to handle calls. In some mass-tort litigation practices, for example, the staff regularly fields questions about the status of a client’s case. Questions are handed off to a lawyer only when the staff can’t answer.
Train Your Clients
Even if you try to make phone calls less frequent, reassure your clients that you are available and happy to take their calls. I say something like this: “I’m often hard to reach, but if you need to talk to me about anything at all, please call. I’ll get back to you as quickly as I can.” Don’t stop there. As long as you are talking about phone calls, educate your clients about how you will keep them informed about their legal matters.
If phone calls are a big problem for you, educate your clients. Tell them what is a good reason to call and what is not. And if you prefer emails to phone calls, say so.
Dealing with Problem Clients
Sometimes the problem is not the calls from clients, but the clients themselves. Just a few bad clients can overwhelm your office with irrational demands. Weed out bad clients before you take them on, and (ethically) fire the bad ones that made it through your filter.
Returning Phone Calls
Return calls quickly, and keep them short.
Return Calls Quickly
No matter what the excuse, lawyers who don’t quickly return phone calls are not managing their offices effectively. Once you begin to ignore calls, your clients will consider other ways to get your attention, like firing you, writing negative online reviews, or contacting the ethics board.
Accept the fact that each day you may have to spend some time on the phone. If you find yourself procrastinating, set a specific time each day for returning calls. Another trick to get yourself over the hump: choose the calls you least want to return, then return those calls first.
Keep Calls Short
Once you are talking to a client, take control of the interaction. Don’t allow for conversation that isn’t relevant. Figure out what the client wants, give them the information they need, and politely end the conversation. Announce from the outset your time is limited, if you find that it helps. When you are deluged with phone calls, just explain that you have a lot of calls to return, but you didn’t want to make your client wait.
Tell the client what you are going to do next. “I expect the other side’s motion to dismiss next week. I’ll call you when it arrives.” If the clients need to take the next step — drafting interrogatory answers, for example — tell them to get started and call back if they have further questions.
Some lawyers willingly assume the role of coach, parent, or therapist. Don’t take this step blindly. Giving in to the neediness of one client can lead to a neglect of many others. Other lawyers are afraid of offending their clients by declining their invitations to chitchat. Most clients are understanding. They prefer a lawyer who is in demand, not a lawyer with time to burn. Clients value a lawyer’s time to the degree they think the lawyer’s time is valuable.
If All Else Fails, Schedule a Meeting
Sometimes, a phone call is not sufficient to address a client’s issues. Perhaps the issues are complex and require extensive conversation. Maybe a client’s panicked tone has caused you to make an exception to your no-therapy rule.
A face-to-face meeting might be in order. Just remember that meetings are even more likely to run long than phone calls. One lawyer I know schedules meetings back-to-back in half-hour slots. This way, she gives herself sufficient time for the meeting while creating a sufficient excuse to end the meeting in a timely manner.
Featured image: “Exhausted man sitting with a bunch of phones over him” from Shutterstock.