Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : February 2006

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 SOLO/SMALL FIRM PRACTITIONER

BY PAT YEVICS  

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 even computers.

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, e-mail, etc.

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 contacted after "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.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: February 2006

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