Prevent Phone Calls From Monopolizing Your Time


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.


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  • I think these are some good tips if you want to limit both your time on the phone and the number of calls you make (or get).

    But that goal of itself steps almost exclusively from a productivity perspective.

    What about the relationship perspective? Sure, keeping things to business is good for your productivity, and some clients won’t care beyond that. But what if your client’s son just had a big baseball game you knew about, and asking him would make that client “feel the love” a bit more?

    Surely the development of the ongoing relationship is worth a few minutes of chit chat that “isn’t relevant”?

    Perhaps some middle ground is called for between unnecessary waffling on the phone, and the complete business-like approach espoused here?


  • Guest

    I maintain a litigation oriented practice with approximately 500 open files. I do not have complaints, or unhappiness from my clients regarding communication.

    I maintain a rule of no inbound calls accepted. Clients are told about this, and it is put in writing, at the time I am hired. The clients are told the benefit, which is real, is that while I won’t stop working on other client matters to take their call, I will also be working uninterrupted on their case.

    Every client is assigned to a non-lawyer staff member who is there to answer questions or provide status updates. The staff member is personally introduced to them when the come in for their initial appointment. This step is important. That staff member is then required to keep the file organized and “owns” the case so that they can help the client with information or questions going forward.

    I initiate a call to all new clients the week after I am hired. There are always additional questionsconcerns that the client thinks of in the hours and days after hiring a lawyer. Calling the next week provides an opportunity to address them, plus makes you as the lawyer look good.

    Then depending on the complexityseriousness of the client’s matter the staff member may then initiate calls every thirty days or so. I initiate a call to every client, every time, the week before any hearing or court appearance).

    When clients request to talk to me we schedule phone appointments. I schedule them twice a week, either Tuesday morning or Thursday afternoon. These are never scheduled the same day. Most clients when they find that they have to wait a few days, and don’t get instant gratification, will finally “break down” and allow my staff to assist them. The clients who wait for their appointment are usually the ones who have real questions, so I don’t spend much time at all dealing with the daily “are their any updates” or “random hypothetical” questions.