It may surprise you, but the number one complaint about attorneys across the country is that they don’t return their client phone calls in a timely manner, if at all. A successful attorney-client relationship is based in large part on communication, but it is all too often that attorneys forget that communication is a two-way street. Returning client phone calls is not just a matter of common courtesy, but for attorneys, it’s mandatory.

As attorneys, we’re very busy people, and we just don’t have the time to remain glued to a phone constantly. Let’s call a spade a spade: lawyering is a multi-faceted profession, and we must strive to provide excellent customer service in addition to high-quality legal expertise. Returning client phone calls should be a priority for attorneys—not only to keep your clients happy, but also to keep yourself out of hot water with the state bar. In the long run, returning client phone calls could save you some trouble.

But my clients call me so much…

Last year, The Stubborn Writer came up with a top ten list for clients regarding why their attorneys weren’t returning phone calls. Items on the list range from the attorneys being busy on a more important case or not having any news to report, to the client being an idiot or an ass who doesn’t listen. Lawyerist, too, has written about how attorneys can train clients to exhibit appropriate behavior, and what to do when clients are calling too much on the phone.

The nuance that both legal blogs have failed to point out, however, is that if attorneys avoid returning client phone calls, they may bring the wrath of the state bar down upon themselves. Most states have adopted some form of ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct. Rule 1.4 covers communications during the attorney-client relationship, and many states have adopted this rule verbatim. Rule 1.4 states:

(a) A lawyer shall:

(1) promptly inform the client of any decision or circumstance with respect to which the client’s informed consent, as defined in Rule 1.0(e), is required by these Rules;

(2) reasonably consult with the client about the means by which the client’s objectives are to be accomplished;

(3) keep the client reasonably informed about the status of the matter ;

(4) promptly comply with reasonable requests for information; and

(5) consult with the client about any relevant limitation on the lawyer’s conduct when the lawyer knows that the client expects assistance not permitted by the Rules of Professional Conduct or other law.

(b) A lawyer shall explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation.

(emphasis added)

Don’t create bigger problems for yourself

Simply ignoring a “problem client” won’t make the problem go away—in fact, it could make the problem even bigger. As we’ve previously mentioned, attorneys need to think like their clients. If an attorney ignores client phone calls, the client may start to wonder what else the attorney has chosen to ignore, like new developments in the case, or even filing deadlines. Such thoughts could lead to exactly what the attorney has been trying to avoid: more phone calls, or even worse, a complaint with the state bar.

So, is your client calling you multiple times a day and asking you to repeat yourself like a broken record? If that’s the case, although the client may be an “idiot who doesn’t listen” by Stubborn Writer’s standards, attorneys must still provide answers to a client’s reasonable requests. In short, some clients will require more hand-holding than others, some clients will make demands that are almost impossible to meet, and some clients won’t understand their own case no matter how many times they are told.

Returning client phone calls might be a little bit of a pain in the neck, but defending a bar complaint can be a major pain in the ass for attorneys. At the end of the day, we chose to be attorneys, these people are still our clients, and we have to do our best to assist them.

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  1. Avatar J Zaretsky MD FAANOS says:

    Excellent! Much like patients clients of Attorneys are nervous scared and a simple phone call can assuage their fears!
    This is probably the most important aspect of the relationship with your clients!
    If you ever have doubts just put yourself in their position.
    Best advise treat all your clients as if they were your own family
    The rest should flow from there.
    Good luck to all and take this to heart as it carries more importance and credibility to your careers as lawyers and advocacy.

  2. Avatar Jade E. Freeman says:

    Keep your sanity and never be available 24/7. Schedule specific times of the day for phone calls, put them on your voicemail and stick to them. Plan your work and work your plan.

  3. Avatar Ben Bunker says:

    24 hours is my rule on returning client calls. Same day is the goal.

    There is something to be said about client screening here. If you cannot (or will not) cater to the “high maintenance” client, be sure that you discover who that is BEFORE taking their business. Some attorneys can professionally manage “high maintenance” clients while others do not want to deal with the hassle. Be honest with yourself about this and do not take these clients if you cannot deliver.

  4. Avatar Sylvia says:

    Thank you! As a paralegal, I really appreciate seeing this! I hate taking multiple calls from clients when they tell me the attorney hasn’t called them back. They get mad at me! Like it’s my fault or like I’m supposed to physically make the attorney call them back. I start law school this summer and being a paralegal may not have taught me the legal knowledge I need to be a lawyer, but if nothing else it has taught me what not to do in a lot of cases especially in regards to how to treat people, particularly clients and staff.

    • Avatar Staci Zaretsky says:

      @Sylvia: I agree. I was a legal assistant for a year before attending law school, and in that time, I learned that providing customer service is a huge part of being a lawyer. It’s unfortunate that a lot of lawyers don’t really acknowledge that, though. Best of luck to you in law school!

      @Ben: I’m with you! I find it incredibly rude when people don’t call me back in a timely fashion, so I try to get back to everyone within 24 hours. My real goal, though, is always to make time in the same day to call back. I wish more lawyers would take on this attitude, especially in a business-to-business or litigation situation. I shouldn’t be waiting one week plus on a return call for something like that, but I am… constantly!

  5. Avatar Frank G. says:

    Very good article. I must say I wonder whether you will be so enthusiastic about returning those phone calls after you’ve been in this game for 20 years. If you are in an area of law practice that involves dealing with a high number of the worst kind of clients, you will understand why so many lawyers eventually get burned out over the constant phone calls. Some clients have nothing better to do with their time than waste your time, and spending your whole day on the phone with them means you don’t get any real work done. If there is nothing new to tell them, my secretary can tell them that. They don’t need 15 minutes of my time for me to say nothing has happened since two days ago the last time they called.

    • Frank, at least you’re having your secretary make those calls. In my experience, I’ve found that some lawyers don’t even do that. Maybe I’m too young/naive/nice, but I think it’s great when someone from the office acknowledges that you, as the client, have called with a question. It’s nicer when the secretary that calls the client back says something to the effect of “Attorney XYZ received your message, and asked me to give you a call.” That way, it makes it look like the lawyer actually cares about the client.

  6. Avatar Ron Lane says:

    I practice family law, so I get a high percentage of clients who feel the all-consuming need to call over everything, all day. I’ll get a voicemail and then a phone call to repeat what the voicemail said. I’ll have a 20-minute conversation with someone and then get a frantic phone call because opposing counsel’s motion asked for attorney’s fees (even though the previous 15 pleadings all asked for attorney’s fees too). I’ve found that two things help tremendously: (1) as Jade said, I have specific times when I check voicemail and return phone calls, and I set my phone to “do not disturb” during other times, and (2) I send an email, at no charge, to every client at the end of the week giving them a status update on their case. Most phone calls are asking about the status, and this takes a lot less time than a phone call, gives me a record for the file, and has cut my client phone calls nearly in half.

    • Sam Glover Sam Glover says:

      I’ve always recommended that family lawyers charge a large, flat fee for after-hours phone calls. Make it an amount that would make you willing to answer. Say, $500 per call. Then answer your cell phone, your home phone, whatever you want your clients to have.

      That said, your method sounds highly effective, too.

    • Avatar Jessica Y. says:

      Wow. That’s nice that you give everyone an update every week, but my time just won’t allow that. I’m trying my best to transition away from domestic work and do more civil litigation between entities and people who have more on their plate than emotions.

  7. Avatar J. Smith says:

    From a client’s perspective:

    I would certainly hope that I am not one of those clients who are considered an ‘ass’ by my attorney. I don’t call every day and I don’t ask for updates without a reason. However, I do stay informed about my case and follow it on the state’s website and when I see that something happened in my case, and my attorney hasn’t called me, I call him. I think that is a fair time to call.

    I certainly understand that he is a busy man and has many cases and some things are more urgent than my case at this point, however, if I call once a week for three weeks and don’t get a response, I feel like I am being ignored. Oh and this is not a flat fee case, I pay hourly.

    As a quick example, we filed a motion, and the opposition filed a response. I had a question about the response once I received it in the mail (I live out of state from the case) and called to ask. I have yet to hear back from my attorney to this day and the motion has since been in the courtroom and a decision made. Am I being an ‘ass’ to ask what is going on? Should I have to wait until things are mailed to me?

    I appreciate the writer and responses to this post. I think communication is the key to any relationship, especially an attorney/client relationship. To top things off, I told my current attorney before hiring him that this was the exact reason I fired my last attorney. His response was, of course, it won’t happen with him. *frustrated sigh*

  8. Avatar Elizabeth Kelly says:

    I liked this article very much. I have a personal injury case which I placed with my attorney two months ago. He is also looking into product liability as a result of my injuries. Since the time of signing with this attorney, I have heard zero from him. His law firm is considered to be very successful. I don’t want to annoy him by calling to soon. I decided to let it go another month before calling him. Question: Shouldn’t my attorney have contacted me by now, at least to inform me, what has transpired in my case in the past two months. This firm goes after big settlements, and I am sure if I would irk them, they would drop me. I know how very buzy you are, but if you could possibly find the time to respond, I would be very grateful. Thank you again for your very informative article.

  9. Avatar Arnold says:

    My wife is divorcing me. A year ago, I received a request from my wife’s attorney through my attorney, for tax records, investment records, and numerous for other records for the entire duration of the marriage, which lasted 25 years. I called my lawyer to see if I had to produce all of this information. I received no response, so I emailed, and when I received no response, I called the paralegal, who said that I had to do what was requested. Knowing nothing about divorce and in shock because the divorce was a surprise, I spent numerous days and weekends scouring the attic to find as many of the requested records as possible. When I brought them to the law office, my lawyer said that she wasn’t going to waste the time reviewing more than 5 years of the records, and if they wanted to to see them, they could come in and go through them themselves.

    She also told me she had had a number of emergency custody battles in the three months since I had called her about whether I needed to produce the records, and had taken some vacation.

    I’m sure the letter from my wife’s lawyer was boilerplate, and had been written by an idiot paralegal (it referred to my wife as the defendant, even though she was the one who filed for divorce).

    Our total assets are only about $300,000 (home equity, checking accounts and IRA’s), so our divorce should be simple.

    Had I known what I know now, I would have changed attorneys then, even though our town has only a handful of divorce attorneys and mine is the only one who specializes in family law. Again, I haven’t heard from my attorney in three months – I’m not sure if that’s because my wife (my wife is incommunicado with me and our children and living 300 miles away) hasn’t responded to our last offer, or because me lawyer is again too busy. An email sent two days ago has received no response. I’m in a place where I’d rather not start all over again, but am wondering if it’s time to punt.

    Two lessons:

    Lesson one: if you want a long, painful divorce process, hire an attorney and communicate with your spouse only through an attorney. If you want to have it move more quickly and have a less expensive one, follow Sam Margulies’s recommendations and use mediation.

    The second lesson: even if you’re in shock, give your attorney the benefit of the doubt only for a few days and for a few calls, and if you don’t hear back, fire your attorney and make sure that you get the word out after your case is finished that this attorney doesn’t call back.

  10. Avatar Wulfguard says:

    S0 I still haven’t been informed of what is reasonable 24 hours. 48 hours 3 days a week. All I read was the bellyaching of attorney’s trying to put the client at fault for there ineptness. In returning calls if your to busy to return calls do take on so many clients. At 300.00 plus per Hour I want my +×÷/_!#$%ing calls returned so what’s reasonable.

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