Maybe You Shouldn’t Answer Your Own Phone. Here’s Why.

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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.

Answering your own phone is killing your productivity, making you look bad, and setting a precedent for your clients. Avoid unscheduled phone calls to increase your productivity and have a better relationship with your clients. Just don’t avoid the phone when it would be quicker and more effective.

Killing Your Productivity

A ringing phone is an interruption that kills your productivity. To answer the phone, you have to stop what you are doing, switch gears, and then get back to work afterwards. Various studies (mostly linked from this Wikipedia entry) show that it can take as much as thirty minutes to resume work after an interruption.

Depending on how much your phone rings, that’s a lot of time wasted, especially since you don’t have to answer all those calls yourself. In fact, you may be making yourself look bad by answering them.

Making You Look Bad

Maybe you are the kind of person who doesn’t mind being interrupted, and you can quickly go from reading your opponent’s latest infuriating accusations to cheerfully answering the phone, having a productive call, and getting right back to work. I don’t think many people — lawyers included — can do that. Usually when I call a lawyer in the middle of the work day, I get someone who sounds annoyed, in a hurry, and doesn’t really want to talk to me. That’s probably not the experience you want callers to have — especially if they are potential clients.

If you can’t be cheerful and helpful whenever you answer the phone, you are just making yourself look bad by answering it yourself. You are also teaching your clients that they can reach you any time they want to.

Setting Precedent

When you answer your own phone, you indicate to clients that they can get you whenever they want to talk to you. Now, maybe that is on purpose. Personal service like that is a pretty high value, after all, if you are willing to deliver on your promise. Just make sure you mean to promise it.

If you are going to answer your own phone, make sure your clients know what to expect when it comes to your availability. Let them know your hours and how quickly you will get back to them. You may even want to charge a special after-hours rate for emergencies (say, double your usual rate) to deter unnecessary calls on evenings and weekends and give you an extra incentive to answer them. You can always waive the extra cost for legitimate emergencies.

Whatever you decide, set expectations carefully. You cannot answer your phone yourself all the time. You will have meetings, court, and a life. Make sure your clients know that. Also, make sure you are comfortable not answering calls from potential clients right away. Will you lose valuable clients because if aren’t able to pick up the phone right away?

Have Someone Else Answer the Phone

The bottom line is you should probably have someone else answer the phone. That was one of the best things I did for my own practice. My clients were happier with the service they got from my firm, and I was happier because I wasn’t being interrupted all the time.

Here are the pros and cons of the most popular options.

Voicemail. When I was trying to figure out how to spend less time being interrupted by phone calls, I stopped answering the phone and left a message like this on my voicemail:

I return phone calls at 10 and 4 if I am in the office. If you need to reach me more quickly, please send me an email.

It was an effective way to avoid answering the phone, and it did set expectations, but it wasn’t very nice. I doubt potential clients appreciated it. If you aren’t going to answer your phone, hire someone else do to it. Don’t just send callers to voicemail.

Virtual Receptionist. The easiest way to have someone else answer your own phone is to hire a virtual receptionist service like Ruby or Back Office Betties, or you can look for someone yourself who is willing to answer your phone remotely.

I did both. Ruby did an awesome job answering my phone for a fraction of what I would have had to pay someone to sit around all day waiting for my phone to ring. But after a while I got lucky and found someone with lots of experience as a legal secretary at a big firm who wanted to work from home until her kids started school.

Erica answered my phones and managed the firm’s intake process from the first call to the first meeting, including following up, bugging potential clients for documents, etc. It cost more, but she was able to handle things that went beyond the scope of what Ruby could do.

Both Ruby and Erica did such a great job that I regularly heard enthusiastic reviews from callers after they got through to me. If I were starting a new firm today, one of the first things I would budget for would be a virtual receptionist.

Receptionist. In fact, for purposes of answering the phone, I think a virtual receptionist service is better than hiring someone to sit in your office. Unlike a service, a receptionist in your office will require breaks, and getting someone who can answer the phone 13 hours a day like Ruby does (or 24/7 if you need that) is cost-prohibitive for most solos or small firms.

However, a virtual receptionist can’t greet your clients when they come to meet with you, help you scan and file documents, or help you maintain your calendar. And even if you hire a fairly skilled assistant to handle intake, you may need someone to help out with other tasks that aren’t so easily handled remotely.

Depending on your needs, you might be able to get by with a friendly law clerk from a nearby law school, but you will probably be better off hiring a full-time legal secretary.

Whatever You Do, Don’t Avoid the Phone

While you should give serious thought to whether you ought to be the one to answer your phone, don’t avoid the phone entirely. If you have a receptionist answer your phone, make sure they know when to transfer calls to you. When it comes to other communicaftion, remember that you can only do so much with email or by working through staff.

The point is to use the phone when you can be effective, not when you are going to be distracted and ineffective.

When it comes to scheduling appointments, negotiating, or clearing up misunderstandings, it is often more efficient and effective to just pick up the phone and have a quick conversation. You are also less likely to be misunderstood during a phone call than you are when communicating in writing.

Schedule calls whenever you can and it makes sense to do so. Before your calls, spend a minute or two making an agenda so you can be efficient with your time. Send an email with any questions that will require the other person to gather information.

Also, set up a regular time to make calls. It can be helpful to make calls in batches once or twice a day instead of scattering calls throughout your day. That doesn’t mean you should only ever pick up the phone during these windows; it just means you might be more efficient if you get all your calling done in one chunk.

Above all, Never use email when a phone call would be quicker and more effective.

Featured image: “a young woman sitting in office and calling has stress” from Shutterstock.

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  • J. Flanders

    Here is my problem – I have made an awful lot of money and have a healthy law practice and I still answer my own phone. Does it create problems? Yes. Do I get very tired of the interruption and the constant annoyance? Yes. However, I hesitate to pay somebody to answer the phone for me mostly because I know I miss business by not answering the telephone myself. People love that an attorney answers the phone when they call. I get them to commit to meet right away and I get a lot of business that way. Is it perfect? No. But, it does work. Thanks for the post, though. Much appreciated.

    • I’m not going to try to persuade you to change what works, but it might be interesting for you to try a short-term experiment to see if you are right. If you do lose some clients, then you lose some money and you gain some certainty. If you are wrong, you might be really happy with how it improves your life. Maybe that’s worth the risk.

      I’ve got no idea what the result would be for you, but Randall and I did similar testing and concluded that answering the phones ourselves didn’t help us get more clients (neither did offering free consultations, for that matter). I think the nature of our practice and the type of client had a lot to do with that, but it wasn’t the result we expected (which is one reason we kept testing it).

      • J. Flanders

        Fair enough. I hear what you are saying. If I get motivated (a big if) I will report back on this with my experience and tangible client-retention results.