Every year when your local bar councilors return from the North Carolina State Bar Council meetings in Raleigh, they tell you the number one complaint against lawyers, year after year, is their failure to return telephone calls to clients. Why are lawyers so hesitant to return phone calls, and why are we, as members of the legal profession, not doing more about this glaring problem? A woman called me a while ago and said she had been trying to get her lawyer to return her calls for eight (8) months and had yet to hear from him.
If your doctor told you that he would call you in three days about your biopsy results, I am confident you would consider that to be an important call. If you did not receive a call from him by the end of the third business day, you would probably become anxious. If you did not receive a call on the fourth or fifth day, you would probably start to get angry. Why would you think your legal clients are any different? Each case in your office is the most important one you have - to the client involved. When clients call, and you unavailable, they expect you to call back within a reasonable time.
What is a reasonable length of time to return a phone call? I think the best policy to have is to return all calls the day you receive them; however, I also believe an acceptable policy is to return all phone calls within twenty-four (24) hours. I challenge each lawyer, firm, and voluntary bar association to adopt a new policy called "NO MORE THAN 24." When new clients come into your office, tell them at employment contract time that you have a "NO MORE THAN 24" policy regarding phone calls. Explain to them that you will return their phone calls within twenty-four (24) hours, but if you are unavailable, a member of your staff will return the call on your behalf. Furthermore, you will follow-up with them within twenty-four (24) hours upon your return.
Does it bother you when you call an attorney and the assistant asks for your name, only to return to the line and inform you he or she is unavailable and asks if you would like to leave a message? Do you wonder if that attorney is avoiding you? Unless you are in conference or working on a document, I challenge you to take every call for a month with no screening. After all, most people calling are your clients. There are many lawyers who instruct their assistants to put all calls through without identifying the caller. It makes the assistant's job easier, and the clients appreciate it. If you are handling your cases properly, you will not mind taking calls. If you are not, you need to begin doing so. At the end of thirty (30) days, I am sure you will have positive results, thus changing your office policy regarding phone calls. Your clients will appreciate such a change.
Certain clients tend to generate more phone calls than others. In those cases, establish at the initial interview that you have the "NO MORE THAN 24" policy, but repeated and excessive calls will result in higher fees. It is a difficult problem, but it needs to be addressed - no, the problem needs to be solved.
Technology is constantly changing. Answering machines, voice mail, and email are now an important part of the legal system. Do not refuse to leave a message on a machine if that is your only option. "NO MORE THAN 24" applies to these other systems also. You should respond to each message, regardless of the medium, within twenty-four (24) hours, just as if the message was left with a receptionist or assistant. If you have a cell phone, consider using it during times you are waiting for a case to be called or when you have a few minutes between out-of-office appointments. However, always follow proper etiquette and do not make cell calls in locations that will disrupt or annoy others.
I know of a golf course that had a problem with ball marks on their greens. These marks are created when the golf ball hits the green and causes a tear or indentation in the grass. If the person who made the mark repairs it, the mark will heal within a short period of time. If the mark is left unattended, the mark will become a permanent blemish in the green. The members of the club decided they could solve this problem with a little effort on everyone's part. They adopted a policy called: "Fix your mark and one more." This policy asked all golfers to fix their ball mark on each green and to find another mark that was not repaired and fix it also. The members placed signs of "Fix your mark and one more" in golf carts, and throughout the golf shop and clubhouse. Soon thereafter, the club no longer had a ball mark problem. Our profession can do the same thing with the "NO MORE THAN 24" policy.
"NO MORE THAN 24" is an excellent policy for you, your firm, your bar association, and our profession. It does not require more CLE hours, employees, or equipment. It simply requires more self-discipline and a commitment to a cause that will help improve our profession. Put the quote on your letterhead, in your newsletter, or in your firm logo. You will be surprised at the positive results that will follow.
Now, go return those calls!