Early in my solo practice, before I knew anything about building a client-centered law firm, I came up with a brilliant plan. I was tired of getting interrupted by phone calls, so I decided to just send all calls to voicemail and block off time to return them at 10am and 3pm every weekday.
This was my outgoing voicemail message: “You have reached The Glover Law Firm. Please leave your phone number, email address, and a short message. I return calls at 10am and 3pm every day, and I will return your call at that time.”
So I stopped answering the phone all day. Then, at 10am and 3pm I would open up my inbox and return any calls and reply to any emails that required a response. (I also paid for an email transcription service, so all my phone calls were transcribed and emailed to me.) I loved it.
However, I realized that in terms of the way I was treating my clients and running my practice, it was actually a terrible idea. There were better ways out there. Here’s what I learned:
A Self-Centered Practice vs. a Client-Centered One is Never the Answer.
I justified not answering the phone because I didn’t have a practice area with a lot of competition. My potential clients were unlikely to have a list of consumer lawyers to call instead if I did not answer the phone.
In other words, my clients didn’t have anywhere else to go, so I figured I could treat them however I wanted to. I’ve realized this is the literal opposite of being client-centered. It was completely self-centered.
Over the years, I have encountered other lawyers with similar voicemail messages to the one I used to have. I have even received a similarly-phrased email autoresponder. Placing a call only to hear a cold “I’ll get back to you at my convenience” feels a bit like showing up to your doctor appointment on time and being told to wait while your doctor chats about sports in the hallway.
Just to be clear: The technique I was using was inconsiderate and ineffective. It makes your clients feel bad and encourages your potential clients to find another law firm that does answer the phone.
There’s a Right Time and Way to Answer Your Phone.
What I wish I would have done—and what I eventually did—is communicate with the client according to their preferences. If clients call me, they should get a cheerful “Hello!” within a few rings. If clients email me, they should get a response within a few hours. If clients text me, I should have a plan for handling that, too.
As long as your clients’ expectations are reasonable, you should meet them. That goes for communication preferences as well as everything else that goes into the attorney-client relationship. And if you advertise your phone number there is nothing unreasonable about expecting someone to pick up the phone when it rings. Otherwise, why even have a phone number?
That doesn’t mean you have to be the one who answers the phone. Maybe you are like me and you aren’t always cheerful when you answer the phone if you are in the middle of something. Also, you’re probably too busy to answer every single call. There is a simple solution: Hire someone who can be cheerful and who can handle every call, like a receptionist (even a virtual one).
The Key is Putting Clients First.
There’s much more to building a client-centered law firm than phone calls, of course. It starts with empathy—putting yourself the shoes of your clients and potential clients. If you were them, would you be happy with the way your firm answers the phone? With your law firm website? With the way you greet visitors to your office?
Consider finding a “secret shopper” (a friend will work, if you trust him or her to be brutally honest) to call your firm and give you feedback on their experience. Also, use Net Promoter Score with your current and former clients to identify things you could do to improve their experience.
The point isn’t to sacrifice everything to please your clients, but to find ways to meet or exceed your clients’ reasonable expectations. And making sure callers get a friendly greeting every time is a good place to start.
Sam Glover is the founder of Lawyerist.com, the best place for lawyers to learn how to start, manage, and grow a modern law practice, and home to the community of innovative lawyers building the future of law.