Today’s topic may seem elementary, but there’s a reason professional athletes continue to work on the fundamentals of their game. It’s important. Communication is fundamental to having a successful practice. Responding to emails and phone calls is an often underappreciated and overlooked area of professionalism and practice management. Here are three groups of people from whom you are likely receiving regular communications and to whom you should be responding promptly.
Responding to Judges
A judicial assistant called me and said, “I called you instead of the other lawyer because he never answers or calls me back.” I was totally befuddled. I knew that I’d never been able to get him on the phone or received a return call from him, but I just could not believe the judge had the same experience.
I posted about this interaction on Twitter, with this recommendation, “You don’t want to be the guy who never responds to the court’s phone calls or emails.” A sitting judge replied, “A big AMEN! I’m constantly surprised at the lack of response from lawyers to calls and emails.” I had naively assumed that what the judicial assistant had told me was an anomaly. Apparently, there are some lawyers out there who feel no compulsion to respond to communication from the Court.
Don’t be that lawyer. Judges are people too. Sometimes the decisions they make are more or less coin tosses. If when they look down from their lofty perch what they see in you someone who doesn’t respect them enough to call them back or return emails to their staff, you can hazard a guess about how that ruling is going to land.
Responding to Lawyers
Sometimes in my cases, opposing counsel gets behind on responding to discovery. I’m not throwing stones here — I do too. We all get behind for one reason or another. Typically, when it’s been a couple weeks since the due date, I’ll send an email to opposing counsel saying something to the effect of, “Your discovery responses are overdue. Let me know if you need an extension.” I’m always fine with granting an extension of a couple of weeks when they respond, letting me know what they need. And in these situations, I’ll often even send a second letter if needed later.
There are other times though that opposing counsel doesn’t respond to my overdue-discovery email. And they don’t respond to the second email. But then they get fussy when I file a motion to compel.
Respond to the other lawyers in your life when they reach out to you. It’s good for your relationships with each other. And it’s good for your clients.
Responding to Clients
When I started practicing in 2012, one of the first and most important things my mentors taught me was this: If a client calls, answer the phone. I know — really groundbreaking stuff. But there will be times you’re either away from the phone or just unable to answer. The corollary lesson was this: If a client sends you an email or leaves a voicemail, they should hear back from you within 24 hours. This has become standard operating procedure for me over the last six years.
Your clients are the lifeblood of your practice. Without clients, you don’t get to practice law. If your clients are calling you, it’s likely because they need something. The thing they need may seem insignificant to me or you. They may just want to know about the status of their case. Or they may have important information to relay that changes the trajectory of the case. But the point is you won’t know unless you return your client’s correspondence.
I have two clients that have begun sending me significantly more work over the last two years, largely because of my regular and meaningful communication with them. They have other firms they use in the state. They have more experienced lawyers on their panel counsel list. But they also know that when they send work to me, they’re going to have access to me when they need it.
If they regularly do not hear back from you, they are going to find another lawyer to do their work. Your clients have never had more options for hungry lawyers than they do now. And it’s never been easier for your clients to find a new lawyer. A client who believes his correspondence or phone calls are going into an abyss is an unhappy client. And unhappy clients don’t stick around.
Your clients have choices about who to send their work to. Give them reasons to send it to you.
Photo by Jason Pharrar.