The voice mail at my office went down last week for a few days. I tend to ask that calls not be placed into my voice mail anyway, mostly because I never know where the little paper with instructions on how to access the voice mail from out of the office is at any given time. So rather than have messages from my poor clients and colleagues trapped in the little voice box on my office desk, I recommend email messages.
Some of the legal assistants were exceptionally annoyed at the technology failure that prevented them from communicating with clients, adversaries and the courts. Of course, the whole idea of the voice mail is people leave a message for you when you are unavailable. But I suppose the panic resulted from waiting for a call and not knowing if during that seven minute trip to the lunch room to scope out whatever delicious dessert item was brought in to share and to grab a cup of coffee, that one important call snuck past the receptionist and was lost to the abyss since Judge Smails' clerk was unable to leave a message. And I totally get it because Mary's chocolate chip brownies are pretty much the most wonderful experience a mouth can get in an office setting.
A common complaint clients of lawyers tend to share is that we don't call them back or call them in the first place, leaving them in the dark about the status of their case. I've never understood how as attorneys we can allow that complaint to top the list of grievances when the fix is so easy. My six year old "mini boss" (this is how our babysitter and I have come to refer to my small person. She's a 3'6" dictator with a shockingly mature sense of diplomacy) has actually made a very wise point about communication that translates to our client relationships.
My dad (bless his heart - and you know when I pull up that phrase, something weird will follow) likes to call me on my cell phone at the most inconvenient times. And when he calls, I don't know what the conversation is about to entail. Topics can range from, "I need to borrow $200.00 until Thursday," (a loose term that actually means "I've run out of money and you just need to give me $20 because I went to Walmart and bought a new rod and reel forgetting that I don't get my check until next week and now I can't eat and you wouldn't want me to starve for the next six days, would you? But $20 will do."); "I'm in the hospital and I'm going to need you to re-write my will over here;" "Are you aware of the spawning process of the Alaskan Salmon?;" "I just wanted to call to wish you a happy birthday;" (Me: Dad, it's not my birthday until the 18th and today is only the 6th. Dad: Well, this way when I forget, I'm already covered.) "Did I tell you that I gave myself food poisoning? There's a reason you shouldn't leave raw chicken out. I always thought that was just to prevent the dog from stealing it from the counter;" "Hi, just wanted to see what you're doing;" and so on...
As a consequence of this conversational game of Russian Roulette, I often see that my dad is calling and I don't answer right away. He calls a lot.
We were in the car the other day and my dad called, which interrupted the mini-boss' performance of "Bad Romance."
Her: Mom, quick answer it. Who is it?
Me: It's grandpa, I'll call him back later.
Her: You should answer it now.
Me: Yeah, I don't know what he wants so I'm going to wait and talk to him later.
Her: If you answer the phone, you can find out what he wants and then tell him you have to call him back because maybe it's not that important or maybe he fell and got hurt and needs help.
Her point was not lost on me so I answered the phone only to discover that my dad just wanted to know what time his granddaughter's kid party was starting on Sunday - not that he was coming, he just wanted to know. I think it was a 1 minute conversation, if that, and it required no follow up phone call, which may have entailed other topics like "I think you should hire me at your office as a consultant" or "Did I ever tell you about that time in 1957 when I met Jerome Robbins' mother?"
In the grander scheme of my profession, her point was also well taken. How many times has our assistant buzzed in to report that Mrs. Smith is on the phone only to hear us groan and say, "Can you find out what she wants and tell her I'll call her later?" or "Ugh, not again, I'll call her later." And it's not necessarily because Mrs. Smith is such a burden, it's just that stopping whatever letter or brief we are writing seems like a terrible idea. Then it gets a little worse because we finish whatever we are working on and put off the return call to Mrs. Smith, forcing her to call back again and you know she is adding to her list of grievances "my lawyer never calls me back."
In dating, when a guy doesn't call us or return a call or a text, many of us single ladies shrug our shoulders, sigh and decide "he's just not that into me." Our self esteem and confidence takes a hit and our feelings are hurt. Well, how do you think our clients feel when they come to learn that they just aren't that important to us? Of course they are important - without our clients, we would have no work. But when we don't answer that call or return it in a timely manner, our clients feel as though they are not important which makes us look like arrogant jerks, perpetuating the horrible lawyer stereotypes out there. I don't know about other lawyers, but my clients are my friends, family, neighbors and members of my community. I care about their problems and my job is to help solve them, and not create more issues by failing to communicate.
So here's the advice derived from the mini-boss: answer the call. Take the time to find out what your client needs before you prioritize your work load. A client may have a simple question like "what floor is my mediation on tomorrow?" Or he has a more complicated issue that just may end up being "the reason you went to law school." Would you want to find out that a case went to a lawyer down the street just because you decided not to take the call? No. No, you would not.
Hopefully, you have developed enough of a relationship with your clients that they understand that you are there for them when they need help, but that you also have other obligations. There are many clients who abuse our time just like those certain family members. It usually requires three rounds of "Ok dad, I have to go," before he will agree to end a conversation. And sometimes our clients need to understand that an hour phone conversation where they are re-enumerating all the reasons why they are getting a divorce from that b*#ch is a) not generally appreciated, and b) going to cost them between $300-$500, depending upon billable rates. Legal talk is not cheap.
By and large, showing appreciation and respect for our clients can be done in a number of ways and one of the easiest is to answer their calls. Simple. Often, voice mail cannot be avoided, but when a client comes to expect that they will hear your voice shortly after leaving a message, they will develop the respect for you and confidence in you that will develop into a long term relationship. Alternatively, if returning calls is difficult for you, and it can be when you are out of the office a lot, then be sure that your assistant can get to your messages and return them on your behalf, even if just to determine the needs of your client. Most of the time, my assistant can answer a client's question better than I can anyway.
So with my clients, adversaries and colleagues, I do my very best to answer the call on the first shot and a lot of the time, I have to call them back anyway once I find the answer to their question. But taking the time to ascertain their needs when they call goes a long way in creating strong working relationships. At the end of the day, we all want to be heard and understood and we want to know that the person we have entrusted to help solve a problem is there for us. So be there. Being there is a great habit to start and maintain.