A shocking number of ethics complaints stem from a very simple problem: lawyers not communicating with their clients. Clients pay for our time and effort, and they deserve to hear from us. Plus, our ethical obligations require that we be in touch. So, beyond it being bad business to ignore a client, it can be very bad for your career if disgruntled clients complain to the bar.
To deliver great service and create positive client relationships, take the following simple steps to improve communications.
1. Answer your phone. This seems so simple that it does not need to be mentioned—yet based on grumblings from clients, it clearly does. When attorneys all worked in offices with staff, one of those people was a receptionist, and she answered every call that came in. Clients talked to a real live human who could communicate about the attorney’s availability and when the client would likely receive a return call. Now many of us use a cell phone as our main contact number, or even online services such as Google Voice. We either set them to go directly to voice mail or hit the “reject” button when we see a client calling. Clients leave us messages and have no idea when they will hear back from us. This is terribly irksome to the clients who pay our bills. They want to talk to us. Get over the fear of the phone and simply answer the call.
2. Manage expectations about return calls. There are, of course, times when you just can’t answer the phone. Sometimes it is practical to call someone right back, but other times it simply is not possible. So use your outgoing voice mail message to manage expectations like a receptionist would, and then follow through. When I know I can, I set my outgoing message to say that I will call back within an hour. I know my message promised it, and honestly the guilt of not following through will eat at me, so it forces me to do it. If I know I won’t be able to call back for a while, I make my voice mail say that, too. If a client hears a message that I am in court all day and will not be returning his call until that evening, he won’t expect an immediate call. Again, make sure that when the time arrives when you said you would return calls, you follow through and make them.
An attorney I met recently has a different twist on this—he has hired someone to returns calls for him and schedule substantive calls with the client. After reflecting on it, the brilliance of this idea sunk in. By scheduling a time to catch up with the client, both he and the client are prepared to talk at a specific time. He will not catch the client rushing off to a meeting or driving his children to school; they will both be prepared to talk at the appointed time. Plus, the client won’t be forced to wait to hear back, since the scheduler will get in touch right away.
3. Don’t delay telling bad news. Sometimes we feel the need to protect our clients from news we know they will not want to hear. As much as you want to keep everything positive for your clients, the fact is that simply isn’t your job. We are engaged to help our clients deal with reality in the most effective way possible. Withholding information produces undue stress and harms the trust you work so hard to foster—this lack of candor will earn you an ethics complaint, too. So, as soon as you learn something your clients need to hear, tell them. Pick up the phone, send an email, take whatever action you and your client expect each other to take to communicate, and get the information to them. In the end you will both be better off. You will have adhered to your ethical obligations, your clients will know they can trust you with even the worst news, and you will deal with the reality together.
This rule applies equally to extrinsic matters and negative news you may have caused, such as a filing being rejected because you missed a deadline. In fact, there is an extra emphasis on swiftly sharing bad news that you created. No undesirable situation will improve with the passage of time, and your mistakes require top attention to avoid them turning into ethics complaints.
4. Keep on top of emails. Emails don’t always warrant an immediate response, but clients are accustomed to hearing back pretty quickly, especially on important topics. Here are some tips for managing your email.
When you cannot respond in detail, tell them when you will. If you are reading your email as it comes in, but a client writes and you know you won’t be able to give a substantive response without setting aside some time for it, then write back and tell them you will get back to them by a specific time. Clients will know you are paying attention to them and will patiently await your promised response. Follow through as they expect.
Use your auto-responder to manage expectations. If you know you will not be able to read your email for some period of time, such as during a day in court, your auto-responder can alert clients so they won’t expect to hear right back from you. For example, your auto-reply might say: “I will be out of the office in court today. I expect to be available after 6 p.m. to respond to emails. If I don’t get back to you today, please expect a reply tomorrow. If this matter is urgent and can’t wait for my response, please …” and put in instructions for a suitable alternative for those who have a true emergency. Perhaps they can reach you on your cell phone, or contact a secretary who knows how to reach you (and can filter out true emergencies and placate frazzled clients), or contact a colleague who can assist.
5. Use technology that’s appropriate to the client. Everyone has their own level of comfort with texting, email, social media and phones. As you get to know your clients, learn where their comfort zones lie, then use the mode of communication that best suits the relationship. Some clients are happy to get a short text, while others want a personal phone call. It is good for business and your ongoing relationship to use the client’s chosen mode of communication—even if it isn’t yours.
Ethical obligations, good business practice and basic human decency all require that we keep in touch with our clients. These simple steps can improve your client relationships and help establish your reputation as an attorney who can be trusted.
Megan Zavieh focuses exclusively on attorney ethics, providing limited scope representation to attorneys facing state bar disciplinary action, providing guidance on questions of legal ethics, and writing about ethics at her blog California State Bar Defense. At the age of 21, she earned her JD from the University of California at Berkeley School of Law (Boalt Hall). She clerked for the Honorable Evan J. Wallach at the U.S. Court of International Trade in New York, practiced securities litigation in the New York area, and has been representing attorneys facing disciplinary action before the California State Bar since 2009.