Answer the Dang Phone
To be licensed to practice law in the United States, an attorney must pass two exams: the Bar and the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam, i.e. the Ethics Bar. Compared to the actual Bar exam, the Ethics Bar is a walk in the park. As my Ethics professor said “you only have to remember two things: (1) don’t commingle funds and (2) call your clients back.” Why? Because almost every legal malpractice case (and probably most client defections) stems from misappropriation of funds or failure to communicate.
As a result of this early brainwashing, to this day, I am what some might consider neurotic about answering the phone and/or returning voicemails. Please understand that because my job necessitates a ton of phone conversations, I rarely get excited when my phone rings. My kids and hubs know this and therefore communicate by text only during the work day. However, unless I am in the middle of a meeting or a focused project, when my phone rings, I answer it. If I can’t answer the phone, I check my voicemail at my first opportunity and return all calls at that time.
It’s important. It means something. Here’s how I know that to be true.
When I call my client, JC Blakely, he either answers right away or calls me back within a few hours. Blakely knows I am usually calling because I need information or direction from him which in turn means answering is going to require work on his part. However, he values my time and efforts and wants to help me do a good job for him. When someone’s actions clearly reflect that they value your time, you will knock yourself out to ensure that their efforts are rewarded. And you better believe I answer Blakely’s calls to me as quickly as I can.
My work also requires that I do a lot of research and interviews, often reaching out to experts who have no idea who I am. Last year, I was looking for a legal C Suite recruiter to obtain an expert opinion about the growth of C suite positions in law firms. I called a recruiter I had met at the Law Firm COO/CFO Forum to seek her input. She never returned my voicemail.
Amanda K. Brady
On a lark, I reached out to The Expert — Amanda K. Brady, Global Practice Leader of Major Lindsey & Africa’s Law Firm Management recruiting practice. Not only did Brady answer her phone when I called, she graciously scheduled a time to speak with me extensively. Fast forward a few months and she agreed to write the foreword for my C Suite report and share it with her network. I am now a raving fan and will recommend Brady and her firm to anyone looking for recruiting services because I know how responsive and knowledgeable she is.
For that same C Suite report, I polled every AmLaw200 firm about the constitution of its C Suite. This was exhausting work and my calls were often left unreturned. That said, Mark Hanson, Executive Director of Irell & Manella, answered both my voicemail and my questions. Hanson has since become a dear friend who humors my frequent calls to bounce legal industry questions and ideas off of him. (Maybe he regrets initially taking my call but that ship has sailed, Mark.)
Here’s the moral of my story: if Hanson (and Brady and Blakely) respond to their voicemails and treat me well when I call knowing that I may be able to offer them nothing of immediate value, I can only imagine how responsive they are to their internal and external clients.
Clients know that we pay attention to the things that are priorities to us. How you respond (or don’t) to a phone call sends a message.
Is It Really That Hard?
If your client leaves you a voicemail requesting an update on a matter and you don’t have one, call them back quickly and tell them exactly that. I promise you they would rather know that you have no update than wonder if you even remember who they are. I can also promise you that they will find another attorney for their next matter who will return their call.
If you can’t return a call right away, write it down so you do not forget. Then schedule a time every damn day to return phone calls. Maybe even take a chance returning a phone call from a person you don’t know. Chalk it up to your daily random act of kindness. You may reap unanticipated benefits. Regardless, you will establish a reputation as a responsive and considerate professional.