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Process Improvement Tips

Who’s Answering Your Phones? 3 Tips to Improve Your Law Firm’s Call-Answer Process

By David Skinner and Karen Skinner

Improving the way you answer the phone can dramatically increase the number of potential new clients who hire you.

law firm call-answer process

Do you know how many potential new clients shop around for a law firm? 

Fifty-seven percent. 

Do you know how many law firms provide all the information people want in their initial phone call?

Just 7%. 

The numbers we quote here come from one of Clio’s Legal Trends Reports and their surveys of over 2,000 consumers and 1,000 law firms. The statistics are sobering … but the potential is huge. 

For potential clients, that first call is the start of their customer journey.

If you get it wrong, it could be the end of it. Improving your reception process — particularly how your phones get answered — can dramatically increase the number of potential new clients (PNCs) who hire you.

Here’s How to Improve Your Call-Answer Process

Every month, we share tips to improve one process in your law firm. Because the phone remains the tool of choice for people searching for a lawyer, let’s start with three tips to improve the way you answer your office phone.

Tip No. 1: Have a Real Person Answer the Phone

In most small law firms, lawyers, receptionists or assistants answer the phone during the business day. When they’re busy or the office is closed, calls go to voicemail. 

While most lawyers say their firms respond to voicemails within 24 hours, Clio’s survey suggests that’s not usually the case. Our own Practice Accelerator coaching clients admit the same thing. They’re busy. They can’t always return calls within that 24-hour window.

Your PNCs are also busy, and they’re often stressed. They have a problem and they need help. Depending on your practice area, they may be calling from court, jail or even the hospital. Others may only be able to call after work when your office is closed. They can’t wait for a callback, and voicemail isn’t going to help them.

If your firm doesn’t answer the phone, but the next one does, who do you think is going to get the work?

To ensure callers speak to a person, automatically redirect calls to another member of your staff or an external answering service when your receptionist is busy. Depending on your practice area and the likelihood of after-hours calls, consider engaging an answering service for when you’re closed.  

Tip No. 2: Provide Clear Scripts for Answering Phone Calls

PNCs have lots of basic questions: Can your attorneys help with my type of problem? How do the fees work? Can I book an appointment? What happens next? Most firms don’t answer them completely.

You can stand out from your competition simply by answering basic questions during the initial conversation.

However, we aren’t suggesting you answer the phone yourself. If you’ve followed us for a while, you’ll know we believe lawyers should not be taking initial calls from PNCs. Instead, a well-trained assistant, receptionist or answering service — armed with a clear “script” that includes answers to most of the initial questions people are likely to ask — can do the job as well or better than a lawyer at a fraction of the cost.

Your script should permit anyone who answers your phone to:

  • Screen PNCs by gathering the right information.
  • Answer frequently asked questions.
  • Set out the next steps in your intake process.

A good script isn’t a document people read word for word. Callers can tell if someone is reading. You want conversations to sound warm, natural and professional, so we recommend a series of prompts and suggestions instead. 

With the right prompts, your staff or your answering service can start each call with a professional greeting that sets the tone for your firm and then pose screening questions that weed out the tire-kickers and people who are not a good fit for your firm. From there, they can move qualified PNCs to the next stage in your process, whether that’s an engagement letter, an initial consultation with you, or something else. In this way, your script also serves as a checklist to ensure nothing falls through the cracks.

Your script also needs to empower your staff and your answering service to answer common questions:

  • Compile a list of things PNCs ask you and that your staff get asked most often.
  • Include your ideal answers in your script so that your team can respond quickly and accurately.
  • Provide prompts for polite ways to defer to someone else if a caller asks a question they cannot answer.

Most importantly, make sure everyone who answers your phones has quick access to the script and knows how to use it.

(Editor’s Note: If you want a sample script and a shortcut to creating your own, the authors have created a script-builder tool as part of Gimbal’s Ultimate Intake Package, available to Attorney at Work readers for $49 with the coupon INTAKEAAW.)

Tip No. 3: Listen in on Incoming Calls

Not everyone was born to answer phones, but you can train people to answer professionally and provide an excellent initial experience for PNCs.

To improve how calls are handled, start by understanding your current state. How are phones being answered right now? What does your staff say to PNCs? What questions are they being asked? And are they able to answer those questions?

Record incoming calls and then listen to them. If your jurisdiction doesn’t permit you to record calls, sit in with your staff as they answer calls. It’s not perfect but it will still give you some insight.

When Gary Falkowitz, author of the excellent book “Complete Guide to Law Firm Intake,” started listening to intake calls at his firm, he discovered that every single call could be improved. You’ll likely find the same thing.

As you listen, ask yourself: 

  • Is the tone right? 
  • Do I need to correct any misinformation?
  • Would my staff benefit from telephone etiquette training?
  • Do they need sales training?
  • Do I need to update the script or change something else about my process? 

There are many ways to improve your law firm’s intake and reception processes. These three tips will improve one of the most important elements: how your firm handles incoming calls from potential new clients.

Remember That Improvement Is Never Done

Make it a regular practice to listen to calls, update your scripts and provide training to everyone answering your phones.

And if your PNCs are among the 25% that prefer email to the telephone, here’s a bonus tip: 60% of law firms don’t respond to emails at all, so if you can improve your email response rate even just a little bit, you’ll be ahead of your competition!

Karen Dunn Skinner and David Skinner help lawyers and legal professionals build more efficient, productive and profitable practices. They’re the co-founders of Gimbal Lean Practice Management Advisors and lawyers with over 20 years’ experience each in Canada and Europe. Together, they’re the exclusive Global Advisors on Legal Process Improvement to the International Institute of Legal Project Management. They write and speak regularly, facilitate legal process improvement projects across North America, and have taught Gimbal’s LeanLegal® approach to thousands of legal professionals.

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