Taming the Beast
~Managing your clients' expectations in a 24/7 world~
Everywhere you turn, you read about how stressed everyone is because of how
technology has "speeded" up all of our activities. We no longer get a relief
from the pressures of work and clients. Technology is always listed as the
culprit. Technology was supposed to relieve us of burdens, but instead it has
simply intensified them. The belief is that before we had all these high-tech
gadgets which make us instantly accessible and information gathering much easier,
the world (and the legal profession) moved at a leisurely pace.
I doubt that very much. Simply because people could not produce as much in
the past due to less technology does not mean that they were not working as
hard or as furiously as they could given the tools and machines of the day.
The idea that technology is the source of all our problems has always perplexed
me. I have never believed that to be true. I don't know about all of you, but
I have been really busy since 1968 – long before cell phones, PDAs or
The technology is not the problem. We are the problem. It is not the technology
that has caused us to move at a seemingly quicker and more frenetic pace but
rather how we use (or abuse) that technology. As I have often said, technology
is just a tool; how we use the tools determines how we work and live.
Unfortunately, new technologies usually come at us at a faster pace than
our ability to create
"rules" for using them. The automobile was invented before traffic lights.
The same is true for computers, fax machines, cell phones, PDAs, the Internet,
Instead of whining about how demanding clients are and how we have to work
at a faster and faster pace just to please them, let's come up with ways to
use the technology to be more efficient and, more importantly, how to create
rules so that we can "teach" our clients how we can help them even more.
I know that law is based on relationships and all these rules will not apply
to all clients or at all times, but I think it is important to establish realistic
standards so that clients know what you are promising to deliver and their
expectations can be met. In addition to creating these new standards or rules,
I think it is critical to share them with your clients from the start of the
engagement. You might also want to consider sending the rules to current clients.
You may not be able to do that with all existing clients, but it should at
least be considered. You also want to share this information with your staff.
Simply because you can be accessible 24/7 does not necessarily mean that
you should. I am not really sure that most clients even considered that they
needed this 24/7 service until some overly-anxious practitioner or techno-practitioner
offered. For the vast majority of clients, there is no need to answer an e-mail
instantly. In fact, I would be concerned if my attorney responded to me instantly.
I would be concerned that he or she 1) was not very busy and 2) did not give
the answer sufficient thought. Like coffee, instant is not always best.
When explaining to clients what they can expect from you regarding communication,
you want to let them know that you or someone from your office will return
all phone calls within 24 hours (or whatever your standard is). Also explain
that you may have to call after 5:00 p.m. Ask the client if he or she can be
"work" hours or at home or on weekends. Ask if they can be contact on their
cell phone. This shows respect for their time. Ask them if they communicate
via e-mail. Some clients do not want to use e-mail.
If you give out your e-mail address to clients then you need to establish
guidelines for using e-mail. First, you need to decide how you are going to
bill for an e-mail response, and share that with the client. Some people believe
that just because e-mail is so quick, that any answers that are received will
not be billed. If you are going to send a lengthy reply, then that should be
treated the same way you would treat a response by regular mail.
I used a lawyer in Pennsylvania to take care of issues related to my parents.
Except for our first meeting, almost all non-urgent communication was done
by e-mail. I would send her a list of questions and she would take a few days
before providing a very lengthy and detailed reply. I expected to be billed
for the time it took her to give me the answers.
It is important to tell clients you use e-mail and will respond within 24
hours. You need to stress that does not necessarily mean that you may have
the answer to their question. A response is not always an answer. You need
to inform them that some questions may take more time than others. To answer
too hastily would not be in their best interest. If the answers to some of
the e-mail questions are detailed, you might want to also call the client to
discuss the answers personally. This is a good way to solidify relationships
because this is sometimes lost with e-mail.
You should also suggest to clients that they send as detailed a message as
possible so that you can be prepared with information when you do return the
call or e-mail. When I call someone and get his/her voice mail, I often leave
a message that I am going to send a detailed e-mail or fax. This alerts the
person to the fact that I am sending an important – but not urgent – message.
Another rule I recommend is telling clients not to send any e-mail
message that requires immediate attention. Any emergency or urgent matter should
be communicated via the phone.
There may be some reason you have a client or a particular case that may
sometimes need your immediate e-mail attention. You may want to consider setting
up one or even two separate e-mail addresses you can use for those unusual
circumstances. You can just give it out for special situations. This also makes
the client feel important (which can be an effective marketing tool).
Although we do not usually think of fax machines as high-tech, this emergency
rule should also apply to fax machines.
If you are going to tell clients not to send emergency or urgent messages
via e-mail then you must define emergency and urgent. What is an emergency
to your client may be a simple matter to you. Many years ago, I heard a lawyer
who practiced criminal defense and family law – two practice areas fraught
with potential emergencies – say that he told clients that they could
call him at home if there was an emergency. He would not charge for these calls
because of the nature of the work. However, if they called him at home and
it was NOT an emergency, he would add an additional amount to the fee. In order
to make certain that his clients knew the difference between an emergency and
a non-emergency, he made a list which he gave to all clients. In addition to
defining an emergency, he told clients what else to do in these instances.
While I do not recommend that you threaten to tack on an extra fee for an
errant phone call, I do suggest that you think about what circumstances you
think constitute an emergency as it relates to your practice area.
Almost everyone has a cell phone, and more and more attorneys, especially
solos, have some type of mobile computing power, be it a laptop or PDA or Blackberry.
If you give your cell phone number to clients and they contact you when you
are at your daughter's track meet or your son's recital, there is no hard and
fast rule about whether you should take the call or let it go to voicemail.
There may be times when you do need to talk with a client about a pending issue.
There are also times when you can allow the call to go to voicemail and return
it at a later time. Every call does not need to be answered every time. If
your relationship with your clients is so tenuous that you need to be available
at any moment, you are doing something wrong and all the technology in the
world will not help.