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If you’re a solo practitioner or in a small law firm, you are likely a slave to your smartphone, making sure clients can always reach you. As managing partner at a small firm, I found it increasingly difficult to keep up with clients’ demands as my practice grew. Many weekends I spent more time on my phone talking and emailing with clients than I spent enjoying my “free” time. The constant need to return client calls and emails after hours was causing me great stress and affecting my personal relationships.
I decided I needed to cut down on the after-hours and weekend communications, but I feared losing business. I knew I couldn’t completely cut off communication during non-business hours — many new cases come in at odd times, and some clients aren’t available during normal business hours.
What I needed was a strategy for managing clients’ after-hours calls and emails.
Obviously, there were some sacrifices with reducing my availability to clients. But following this plan has greatly improved my personal life while minimizing negative effects on my business. If you’re struggling to find a balance between clients’ expectations with respect to after-hours communications and maintaining a healthy personal life, I have five tried and tested tips to help you.
1. To start, you need a clear plan. Take the time to develop a policy with respect to after-hours and weekend communications with your clients. Under what circumstances are you available after hours? In what ways may a client communicate with you after hours? For example, I’m perfectly fine with speaking with a client after hours if they are not available because of work. But, I schedule a specific time for a phone consultation rather than having the client call me out of the blue. I believe this air of formality subconsciously alerts my clients that random after-hours phone calls are not the norm, thus reducing their likelihood. It’s not a bad idea to actually write out your own after hours’ policy. By putting the plan to paper you’re more likely to follow it.
2. Lay down your ground rules with clients. It’s a good idea to explain your after-hours communications policy during the initial consultation. Be diplomatic in the way you explain it. Make sure your client understands the policy and is in agreement with it. For example, I tell my clients that all emails and phone calls will be returned within 24 hours, excluding Sundays. This may save you a lot of grief in the future.
3. Be available for clients during business hours. Most clients understand that they should make their calls to you during business hours. But what if they can’t actually reach you between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.? They may get desperate — and that often leads to late-night and weekend calls. Carve out time during your day to return client calls. This will cut down on distressed after-hours calls.
4. The rules apply to you as well. If you’ve laid out ground rules as to when you are available for client communications, don’t go and break the rules by calling or emailing your client after hours. It was a habit of mine to return calls right before I left work for the night. This often meant making calls well beyond typical working hours. This set a precedence with clients that I was available for their calls at night. I decided that I needed to set time aside in my workday for client calls and emails. If you don’t respect your rules that you set up for client calls, neither will your clients.
5. Don’t let it slide. If a client is seeking communication with you outside of the hours that you have expressly discussed with them, make it clear in as nice a way as possible that they must adhere to the guidelines you previously discussed. Most clients are understanding and realize their lawyers have personal lives. If you let it slide, before you know it you’ll be right back to where you started.
By following these five simple rules, you’ll find that you’re better able to balance a healthy personal life while maintaining happy client relationships.
Steven J. Palermo is a managing partner at Palermo Tuohy Bruno, P.L.L.C., a Long Island personal injury law firm. Steven has 20 years of experience handling a wide range of personal injury matters.
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