Why Don't Clients Respect Office Hours?
A June 2011 discussion on SoloSez, the email listserv for general practice, solo and small firm lawyers
My "office" hours are 8am-4pm; however, I have yet to have a client who respects this. Every single client I've ever had treats me as if my office hours are 6pm-10pm. That's when I receive phone calls, emails, texts and general hysteria; it's also when my clients make appointments to meet with me. For some reason, it's inconceivable to them that a lawyer who works from his home has business hours for a reason.
Do these people insist their doctor only take their calls after business hours? Their accountant? Their psychiatrist?
Just felt like ranting after another prospective client told me he can only meet me an hour away from my home after 6pm tomorrow. Like I can afford the gas and tolls and force my wife to go without dinner and be alone with our infant son until who knows when I come home.
More than one law prof told me that once you hang a shingle, you're a lawyer 24x7. Clients won't necessarily even respect secured leave (even with 90 days notice).
Each time you accept a call, respond to an e-mail, or schedule an appointment, you confirm that you do not, in fact, limit your office hours to 8-4.
Perhaps part of the confusion is "office hours." Your doctor sees you during office hours. You can call an answering service after hours, and your doctor will probably refer you to another resource. But you don't just see clients in your "office"; you provide information on the phone and by e-mail.
So, what you are, by your practices, saying, is: "I am in the office from 8-4, or later by appointment. I will take your calls and e-mails until 10pm [or whatever]."
If you want to nip it in the bud, stop responding to all but the most urgent, time-sensitive requests. ("I'm in jail!" or "I just found a notice that I have to be in court at 9:15 tomorrow morning!")
Set fees for travel time, tolls, etc.; all of that should be in your fee agreement. You probably should not drive an hour to meet with a client who does not have a signed fee agreement and a retainer in the bank.
If you don't set the expectations, they will.
Richard J. Rutledge, Jr., North Carolina
We're in a service industry. There's a reason that Starbucks is open longer than 8-4 or 9-5 too.
Just gently remind the client of your hours. Or, charge 1.5-2.0 your hourly rate for after-hours meetings. That should curtail phone calls and meetings significantly.
Leo M. Mulvihill, Jr., Pennsylvania
So they send you all of these things after hours. No one said you have to answer them after hours. I don't meet with clients (potential or otherwise) after 5 p.m. If that is a problem for them, they need to find another lawyer.
Kurt Valentine, Missouri
I agree with Rick and Leo. You have to manage your client's expectations of your availability. If you respond to them right away in the evening, or on the weekend, they come to expect that you are available then. I had a client who called/emailed a couple of times on the weekend with questions that could have waited until Monday. Each time I responded with an email that said that I would like to be able to give them a thoughtful considered answer to their question and that I would not be able to do that during the weekend/without looking at their file and that I would get back to them Monday morning. This particular client has only called once more on the weekend for what was an actual urgent issue and I went into my office to look at the file so as to be able to respond properly. They were then charged accordingly.
You can not be available to everyone in your life all the time and expect good results. It is the same thing with kids, you have to set parameters and rules or they will take advantage of your good nature. Since you have an infant son, you will eventually need to set some rules with him regarding your availability while you are home - my kids know that when I am in the home office and the door is closed they are not to come in because I am most likely on the telephone with a client - they either slide a note under the door or send me an email.
Deborah E. Kaminetzky, New York
Yeah, I'm at the point now where I only respond to the most urgent of calls after 4. Still, I'd like people to try and schedule meetings with me when I'm not supposed to be cooking dinner and putting an infant to sleep. Maybe that's asking a lot, lol
Rick Silver, New Jersey
Of course, I'm a contrarian, but the real answer to your question turns on who the practice of law (or maybe that should be your practice of law) is about. If it's about serving the needs of your clients, and they can't meet with you at your convenience, then you adjust to their convenience. If it's about serving your needs, with the clients as an afterthought, then by all means tell them you only accept clients who'll fit into your lifestyle.
And since you started by asking about a "potential client" who can't meet with you at your convenience, the answer really is simple: Either you must adjust your schedule, the client must adjust hers, or you have to write off that client. Do you want the work? Do you want to represent that person? If so, you meet her when she's available. If not, you don't. But really, is it her responsibility to make things easier for you in order for both of you to decide if you're a good fit for each other?
Jeffrey M. Gamso, Ohio
I do understand that you have an infant and you can't do it, but I made most of my money evenings and weekends my first year because I was accommodating in terms of my hours. It made me stand out from other attorneys who were busy or less flexible. And I have very grateful clients.
Ellen Victor, New York
"So they send you all of these things after hours. No one said you have to answer them after hours. I don't meet with clients (potential or otherwise) after 5 p.m. If that is a problem for them, they need to find another lawyer."
What Kurt said.
Know why we have so many brats in our lives -- brat kids who whine, brat dogs who jump on you, brat grownups who telephone during dinner hour? Because you don't train them otherwise. You might shout at the dog, and complain to your wife about the dinner call, but that's whining, not teaching.
Lots of people have never hired an attorney. They see 24/7 attorneys on TV and think that's the standard. Your first job is to describe the attorney-client relationship. F'rinstance, when we sign the service agreement, my new client receives a Client Information Sheet, copied onto pink paper for easy finding. It addresses the most-asked questions and the boundary issues that new clients had no reason to know yesterday, when they didn't need an attorney. E.G.:
1. Office hours are Monday through Thursday, 9:00 a.m. to noon, 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. The office is closed Fridays and holidays when the courthouse is closed (most state and federal holidays). The office also closes December 21 and reopens the first Monday of January.
2. Phone calls. If I am not available to take your call, and you want me to call you back, leave a brief message and a phone number. If I check messages when I am out, I cannot return your call unless you leave your number. I do not bill for brief telephone messages. "Brief" means a short message such as leaving some information I have asked you to provide. However, because each message requires writing a note to the file, I bill for numerous brief messages in one day and for longer messages. If someone is violating your Order of Protection first call 911 so the officers can respond immediately, then call me. PLEASE NOTE: I sometimes give clients my cell phone number. This is a personal phone; it is rarely on during office hours. It will be on if I am on my way to a meeting with you so you can let me know if you have an delay. Other than that time, you cannot count on reaching me on my cell phone.
7. Saving money. You can relay some information without charge by sending a short e-mail message or by leaving a short voice message before 8:00 a.m., during the lunch hour, or after 5:00 p.m. For instance, if I ask for a child's birth date, you can send an e-mail, "Billy's dob 1/24/07." You can do certain tasks that I charge for doing, such as copying original documents so that I can keep the copies in your file, obtaining IRS filings, or medical reports.
Even so, you wouldn't be surprised to know that some clients leave minute-long messages on my cell phone and then complain that I didn't return the call. The complaint is a voice mail. On my cell phone.
Carolyn J. Stevens, Montana
How about having an after-hours rate? I think $2,500 per hour should do the trick.
Seriously, though if this is causing that much of a problem, sign up with Ruby. I NEVER get after hours calls. At least none that I answer.
David Allen Hiersekorn, California
Here's a solution: charge more for after hours consults.
I think most attorneys would love to have so many potential clients trying to reach them at all hours of the day.
Isn't that a good thing?
Perhaps there is a connection between getting stiffed by non-paying clients and having to deal with clients calling at all ungodly hours of the day. Maybe the non-payers think they can walk all over you and call whenever they want. And who can blame them for thinking that: they're getting free legal advice from you, why shouldn't they call you whenever they feel like it? What are you going to do about it? Stand up for yourself?
Foonbergism: It is far better to not get paid for work you haven't done than to not get paid for work you have done.
Get paid up front with a retainer that needs to be replenished if they wish for you to continue representing them. You'll weed out the non-payers before doing any work for them.
You can only have non-paying clients for so long before you become someone else's client. I learned that too slow, and too late. If they can't pay you now, chances are very good they can't pay you later. At the very least, get SOMETHING up front, take payments, and stop when the payments stop.
In N.C., it takes a year for a divorce to be finalized. That means they have at least a year to come up with part of the fees. Of course, custody and child support don't have that waiting period.
If they can save up for the big-screen TV they're going to spend $1,000 arguing about in equitable distribution, they can save up (or use a credit card) to pay you to fight the good fight. There is no shortage of work for lawyers out there. Work that they're willing to pay for, that's another thing. I could fill every hour of every day with clients who will happily use my services for free. Tell 'em to start selling some of that stuff and split the money for attorney's fees; that may change their perspective on the value of haggling over the Avon bottle collection, or that "painting" so-and-so gave them as a wedding present. When they start feeling the pain of giving up stuff immediately, the prospect of fighting over it may look different.
As of this very moment, in just under three years of practice, my accounting system says I have 13,619 reasons why retainers are important, and every other attorney collects them.
I used to scoff at clients who came to me and said, "Joe Schmoe says he can't start until I come up with $5,000." Now I know why. Painfully well. Twice I took on litigation with a $500 retainer. In one case, I spent two years, and ended up with nothing but about $20,000 in unbilled time, because after filing suit, I was informed that he "thought sending a threat to sue would be enough," and basically lied to me about being able to pay as we went along. I reluctantly converted to contingency. And, in the end, the case was lost because he was slow to provide information, lagged in discovery, and a number of other things (among them, opposing counsel who saw the bounds of ethics as very flexible).
In another, I used up the retainer speaking to witnesses. When she got the bill for drafting the Answer (she was defendant, mind you), she freaked - even though it was about $300 below my estimate for getting to that point. It hasn't been paid yet, and that was months ago. We *may* actually have a settlement in principle that will get my fees.
Another client had a flurry of last-minute stuff (he'd neglected to alert me to) in the middle of handling another matter, so we shifted gears and dug in. And two months later, he filed bankruptcy and stiffed me for a few grand in fees.
We learn as we go. Yeah, you give a little to build your business, but if the business you build is built on giving away your services, you're not going to be able to feed that baby....
Take this opportunity to learn from this group's collective wisdom and (collectively) centuries of experience in the trenches.
Richard J. Rutledge, Jr.
I am a newbie but I am learning very quickly that, if they don't have the money today, they "ain't never gonna have it." My financial situation is too rocky myself at this early stage to do a ton of work for someone and then never get paid. Plus, suing your clients for fees is the easiest and quickest way to have an ethics complaint or countersuit filed against you (no matter how worthy).
I would also second to get something up front. Also, set deadlines that they must send the remainder money by. If you begin to slip on this, these clients will assume that you are not that serious. I begin contacting my client a week before the deadline to inquire as to how they would like to pay for the remainder of the deposit.
Recently, I have also hired an assistant who politely calls to "just make sure you received the invoice and see if you have any questions." She also asks if they would like to make a payment right then over the phone. This has helped immensely. It seems to take some of the pressure off of my relationship with the client as they see my law office as separate from me when it comes to the bill. Ryan C. Young is trying to help you and fighting hard for you, but Law Office of Ryan C. Young needs to get paid to keep the lights on and pay employees.
Ryan C. Young, Virginia
A lawyer is thought of as the "911" or ambulance of official or administrative disasters. I think we like to perceive ourselves as generally available when a crisis arises. We are happier when we are the only ones who hold ourselves out as omni-present and accessible. Generally I think it works pretty well and only perceived emergencies lead to lawyer "911". Think "ambulance for great confusion usually with a dose of fear or anxiety".
Early as the sole attorney for 25,000 students at UMASS 1970-1974 I recall two occasions when there was a clear distinction. Late afternoon student calls from an apartment complex reporting to me that he had struck a bicyclist in front of his apartment. I asked him about the state of the victim and where the person was. The answer was, "Right in front of my unit, in the parking area!" Asked whether he had called an ambulance, he answered in the negative. In fact the guy was still on the pavement and bleeding, although presumably not life threatened. I told him to contact 911 and call me again, if ever, after six weeks or arrest.
Possibly in the same year in the winter, the Sargent of UMASS PD called that he was with a student who had struck and killed another student walking in the dark crossing the then gravel road between the campus buildings and student parking area. I understood that the "suspect" was grief stricken and "confessing" to a variety of horribles and effusively repentant. The officer said he doesn't understand the system and wait to talk to a lawyer. I inferred that the Sargent felt there was some defense.
It turned out that the boy was going to his evening class and had to drive across the back road in front of the student parking lot to get to class. I referred the boy to a very experienced defense lawyer. The next day I walked the area where the accident occurred. Typical gravel road in New England. Mostly cinders, riddled with pot holes, ruts and drainage swales. There were no lights of any sort in the area. I took some photos and sent them to the lawyer. I said I thought that there was a good defense that the accident was almost certain to happen sooner or later. The boy had to go to his class and the victim to go home via his vehicle parked where required. Unlighted as it was I thought that the University had substantial responsibility in the case and positive for the driver's defense. His lawyer defended him well and settled on a minor motor vehicle violation and loss of license for a year (mainly because the boy was too disturbed to drive safely in the judge's opinion).
I complained about the situation to President and Dean of Students. Soon the gravel way was an avenue paved and lighted. Now it is a principle boulevard between gigantic sports arena, most all sports fields, well-lighted by big arrays of lights for driving as well as sports at night.
It was important in both cases and neither caller thought there was.
The point to me is that I am there to be called. What I need to do for the caller can have many ramifications. If you aren't there, you won't get the case.
Dick Howland, Massachusetts
I just want to add that I frequently send emails late at night -- that's when I have time to regroup my thoughts and get things out the door, whether it's for clients of mine or for times when I'm the client. Perhaps I should add a note to my emails that I NEVER expect a response that night; since my matters are never "life and death urgent" it never occurs to me that the recipient might think I'm waiting for a response.
Of course, I also would never make a call late at night, to either a client or an attorney, without having a prior arrangement. That needs to be addressed up front, as others have commented, and added to your fee agreement.
Karen Fetter Freelance Paralegal, North Carolina
As has been said, set the boundaries and stick to them. I treat the place where I meet clients (the local library that has private study rooms) just as I would my office. If the person cannot come to the library, then I don't meet them. if you had a big fancy office, would the person still expect you to drive an hour away to meet them? Of course not. Simply make it a policy that you will only do so much driving for an initial meeting. Also, consider charging a consultation fee, payable in advance. That cuts out the tire kickers and compensates you for no-shows. I will meet with a client at a reasonable time after 5 p.m. if they ask because of work. I would rather work in the evenings than on weekends. It is an accomodation I chose to make.
Same goes for billing. Get the money up front. If people can come up with $5K for a criminal defense attorney overnight, they can come up with $1500 for a divorce lawyer in a week. Or whatever you charge. If the client is truly trying to pay you and at least making payments, keep going. You will get it eventually. If the person never makes a payment and always has an excuse why they can't pay, dump them. If you really want to work for free, take on pro bono cases. At least then you don't feel resentful at getting stiffed.
As for emails and phone calls outside of office hours, don't respond. My outgoing message on my phone gives my office hours and says if you call outside this time, I will return the call the next business day. Then, I don't return the call unless it is a true emergency. If you are like Karen or me, who likes to draft emails at night, consider getting boomerang. It's a nifty little add on to gmail (I think it supports other email programs) that lets you set the time you send your emails out. So, if you want to get some work done after the baby is asleep, you can do it, but set the emails to go out during office hours. Your clients don't need to know when you actually wrote the email. If you send emails at night, your clients will expect you to respond to their emails at night.
I know it is hard when you are starting out. You feel if you don't be available all the time and all accomodating to your clients you won't have any. But, all you will get is walked all over and broke. Begin how you mean to go on. And stick to it.
Elizabeth Pugliese, Maryland
They won't respect what you don't tell them to respect. Do you have a Communication Policy for your Firm? Make one. Stick to it.
Clients should never be able to reach you whenever. If you are in a depo, do you answer? With another client? Working on someone else's case?
David has it right, hire someone or Ruby. Ben Glass (via Dan Kennedy) takes ZERO unscheduled phone calls. None. Check out his communication policy on the last page.
It might have changed. But there is absolutely no reason you need to take those off-hour calls. Those tend to be the worst clients as well. If you are short on clients, well I guess it's something you have to endure. After business picks up, lock it down.
Joseph D. Dang, California
This is on my mind, as I was interrupted by nine calls in less than 20 minutes yesterday from a client. It made it impossible for me to conduct the call I was on. She left two messages (slurred, at 9 a.m.) and two hangups on the answering machine. Then she called four more times between 9:30 and noon.
When I had it together enough to call her back, I fielded her question: when is her next court date? I told her that it had not been set yet. I then asked if she had received my letter? Yes ... OK, then. I reminded her of her hour (2-3 p.m. Fridays) and that she is to contact me with any questions then, unless she has been arrested on another charge. I said it in my firmest attorney voice. I told her that there was NEVER a need to call someone nine times in 17 minutes. Ever. One message would do, and I WOULD call her back. If she violates this rule again, I told her, I'd block her calls and we'd communicate only via mail.
After a particular nerve-wracking client (he would call every six minutes without leaving a message, until he got through), I learned an excellent trick. Each of my court-appointed clients is assigned a check-in hour once a week where I say I will be available only for them. Holy Mary, it was a miracle! I often also give them a little cheap Mead notebook with a Vistaprint business-card-like sticker on it, with their hour written on it. And every letter I send them includes a reminder about their hour, with a reminder that I will not let anyone disrespect their hour by calling - so they need to help me by not interrupting other people's hours.
My Friday afternoons are very, very quiet. But when clients do call with questions, we make a lot of progress. Sometimes they come to the office during the hour, and we review stuff.
It works because most court-appointed clients feel like their attorney is automatically going to blow them off. If I give them a time that is just theirs, they know they can reach me. They know I'm looking at their file at least once a week. That's also the hour when I call them if I have any non-urgent questions or want an update.
They love the notebooks. (My mom is a former kindergarten teacher with a shopping habit, last fall I got literally dozens of 10 cent-back-to-school-deal spiral notebooks from her.) Some even bring their notebooks to court. (If I'm still at this in fall, I'm sending mom scouting for spiral notebooks with pockets for their court paperwork.)
Also, to be honest, impulse control is far more of a problem for my court-appointeds than for other clients. They also have a different background - many don't understand how an office works, or why a ringing phone would interrupt a meeting. Or it never occurs to them that you're actually doing something else. It's just not in their ken. So I explain: I'm a one-woman, one-laptop, one-cell phone law firm. I can only have one conversation at a time. I pay full attention to them when I am with them, and I pay full attention to my other clients when I am with *them.* They don't need to "blow up my phone." They just need to give me a chance to get back to them, which will be within 24 hours. On the three occasions I've had to take someone to task, two of them stopped with the constant calls once I explained my policy.
"Emergency" also doesn't mean to them what it means to me, so I say what it means to me: unless they've been arrested. Mr Six Minutes thought everything was an emergency, including his questions about cremation. (He was not facing imminent death. It's been almost 2 years and he's still on probation in an neighboring county.)
In the 18 months I've had The Exclusive Hours in place, I've had one client intentionally disregard them. He was deliberately pushing my buttons. I sent a letter saying I would no longer take calls from him - and I didn't. He went to vmail, and he got deleted. Period. Fortunately, it was very near sentencing, and he was jailed in a neighboring county, so there wasn't much risk of any emergencies. The letter said he could send letters, and I would respond to those.
I'm sending you the letter offlist. Adapt it in any way you wish.
Lisa Babcock, Michigan
I am impressed by the method you have developed to communicate with clients in a structured way that lets them be heard and allows you to control your work day.
Deb Matthews, Virginia
Also, if you are having trouble getting paid by client's I think you need to demand a bigger retainer. What's better? WOrking for free or using that time to play with your infant or work on your marketing and building relationships.
It's a hard lesson to learn - but now that I do it I feel much better. There are some client's (DV victims) that I offer reduced rates to, but I know that going into it. I know some people that have other ways with helping less fortunate people - like having one client a month who 'pays what they want'.
Jessica Foley, Massachusetts
Charge up front. Stop working when the money runs out. Never violate this rule.
My first several years as a lawyer, I didn't honor this rule enough, and I didn't make nearly enough money as a result. Don't fall into the trap of taking clients just for the hope that they'll pay you. There's a sign that reads:
"I'd rather do nothing for nothing than something for nothing."
Follow that rule and your life will improve.
David Allen Hiersekorn
The short answer is that your clients don't respect your office hours because YOU don't respect your office hours. If you don't take calls after 4pm, then don't take calls after 4pm. If you're willing to handle true emergencies after hours, then put that in your retainer and bill accordingly.
If, on the other hand, the real complaint is that your clients don't respect your billable hour, then the root cause is the same: you don't respect it either. If you give away your time, your work, your wisdom for free, no one will appreciate it. (Genuine *pro bono*work is an exception to this)
If you want to get respect, demand respect. You'll be healthier, wealthier, and happier if you do.
Michael Alex Wasylik