Making the right choices on telephone use issues

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Published on 11/21/05

Compared to computers and the Internet, telephones seem almost quaint technology. Yet they remain at the core of your firm's ability to serve clients - and involve important day-to-day business decisions.

Here are a few tough calls on telephones and the best way to use them:

  • Can your firm be sued over cell phone use?

    One law firm's experience shows that it's a valid concern. In October 2004, Cooley Godward of San Francisco settled a $30 million lawsuit in the death of a teenager struck and killed on a busy highway outside Fairfax, Va., by one of its lawyers, who was accused of making a business call on her cell phone while driving.

    The lawyer was ordered to serve a year in jail, surrender her law license and pay $2 million in damages. The firm also paid under its insurance policy but was not held liable. Even so, the case suggests a rising risk of vicarious liability for law firms and other employers in similar situations.

  • Do receptionists still matter?

    When I was a chief operating officer of a mid-sized firm, several partners told me that our person on the switchboard was super bright, super good and needed to be advanced. Their idea of advancement was putting her into the data processing department.

    Aside from the fact that I thought that was a demotion, not a promotion, I reminded the lawyers that the receptionist was the firm's first point of contact with the outside world and that we should not risk replacing her with someone who might not be so good. Instead we should recognize her, reinforce her value and increase her responsibility in her existing position. Such an analysis remains perfectly valid today in most firms.

  • Isn't voice-mail enough if a receptionist or secretary is out sick?

    Remember the issue when voice-mail first came out: Technology can't replace the personal touch. Telephone companies soon started an advertising campaign ("Reach out and touch someone") to bring technology back to the human level, and that's still important.

    I recommend using a virtual assistant. The phone company can forward calls to the VA who answers your phones. You return the calls at your convenience. VAs are especially useful for small firms, and are more effective than mechanical devices, in my opinion. High tech, high touch.

  • Why can't clients understand not all phone calls can be returned?

    Maybe because at least one firm has proven differently. Laner Michin, a 40-lawyer employment law boutique in Chicago, has gained fame for its commitment to return all phone calls within two hours. The firm says on its website: "Two hours. Period. No exceptions."

    The firm even promotes what it calls The Laner Michin Challenge: "Call your current lawyer and leave a message to return your call. Wait an hour or two (to give your lawyer a decent head start), then call one of our lawyers and leave the same message. See who calls you back first; we're betting it'll be us. If it's not, we'll buy you lunch and donate $100 to your favorite charity."

That's using a phone effectively!

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