Do you really need to return every client call promptly?

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Published on 3/13/06

Two of my favorite blawgers, Tom Collins ( and Carolyn Elefant (, recently raised an interesting online point/counterpoint.

Tom cited the case of a young partner who always returned calls and e-mails - the following day. This partner felt such a level of service was acceptable, and that it increased his efficiency by avoiding interruptions.

Tom raised the question whether clients would really be happy with a lawyer who hides behind his phone system and places his efficiency first.

Carolyn agreed that such a blanket policy was not acceptable, but also spoke for the solo practitioner who may be in court or under deadline pressure, and simply cannot take or immediately return a call.

As she observed, "Ultimately, responsiveness involves balance. When you're juggling even a reasonable number of clients, all of them can't expect to have their demands met instantaneously. So you have to give priority to those with the most immediate needs first."

I agree with Carolyn that a fast response is not always possible. However, the fact remains that well over half of disciplinary complaints to state bar associations include client service issues like failure to return phone calls or failure to keep clients informed.

As lawyers we're helping people's lives improve, but how do clients know that unless we respond to them? When we communicate and are accessible, fees are not an issue and client complaints are not a problem. When that doesn't happen, lawyers are at best seen as a cost and a "necessary evil." At worst, the lawyer becomes the problem.

There are some options, however, that one can apply to achieve the best response results without resort to cloning.

First, if you are busy and employ one or more staff, have the staff person set up an appointment for you when you will be available. That might be later that day, in the evening or the following day. The fact that the client knows you will call at a time certain is most often sufficient.

Studies have shown that most calls are process calls that the staff person can answer -- checking on a court or a filing date, for example. So much the better! Thus, you, the lawyer, have to deal with only 20 percent of the calls anyway ... and can call the client back when you're available.

If you're a true solo and have no one to set up such an appointment, you must find a way to manage the client's expectations. Do this when you structure your engagement agreement.

Tell the client that if you don't answer the phone or return the call within two hours (or something of this nature), it's because you are in court or otherwise just unable to respond. But, have no fear, you will call in the evening or early morning, depending on the client's preference.

If the client demands a guaranteed rapid response, make it clear that such a level of service would require a higher billing rate.

Managing the client's expectations from the very beginning will avoid disappointment and anger later over the perceived "slight" of an unreturned call.

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