General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division

It's Your Dime or Dialing for Dollars

By jennifer j. rose

Caller: What would happen if. . . .?
Lawyer (resisting the urge to say "You obviously have me confused with someone who cares," because the rent's due): This isn't the Psychic Friends Network. How about lettin' me know who you are, for starters?
Caller: How about givin' me an answer to my question first?
Lawyer: C'mon, that's not fair. You know my name, but I don't know yours. Do you make a practice of calling doctors whom you've never seen and askin' for a diagnosis over the phone?

Abraham Lincoln had plenty of time to come up with quotations like time being a lawyer's stock-in-trade-he didn't have a telephone. More than a century later, Time Matters and TimeSlips account for every breathing moment of a lawyer's life, wrung out by phones, pagers, and beepers. One of the most dangerous tools in a lawyer's office, the phone is also a lifeline, a marketing opportunity, and a time sink . . . especially when each ring represents a potential new client.

In a world that's fair and just, potential clients on the phone (PCOP) will identify themselves, helpfully providing all requisite and requested information, a concise summary of the problem in less than 25 words, and ask for an appointment-understanding that good advice is seldom given gratuitously.

Unfortunately, that happens about as frequently as regular dental flossing. For every potential client who heeds Emily Post's rules about ringing up a professional office, there lurks the unsophisticated, the intimidated, the crafty, and the churlish. For every saint who comes a-callin', there's a sinner wanting representation.

Take control from the very minute the phone rings. Your receptionist should be a gatekeeper, not handing over that phone until she's ferreted out all relevant information. Again, that's the ideal world, one in which this article would hardly be necessary. More often than not, those pesky calls ambush procedure, heading directly to you. It's your call whether to deal with the caller head-on, either expectant that this PCOP's got the winning lottery number (or wanting to simply get it over with) or to call the client back. Determine whether the PCOP's a "live one," willing to make an appointment, shopping for a price or a conflict, or simply curious. Maintain a phone log, identifying all callers, whether they appear genuine or spurious.

Just as you're sizing up the PCOP, he or she is doing likewise. Listen for cues in the client's tone of voice, urgency, willingness to impart salient information, and the inevitable "You give free consultations, don't you?" Ask about impending deadlines. Realize that picking up the phone and calling a lawyer can be a frightening proposition for some folks, who relish the experience as much as a visit to a venereal disease clinic. Be patient, but remember that you're not on talk radio. Set a time limit and, when the time's up, insist that an appointment's necessary before getting in any deeper. Too friendly and casual a tone often results in the PCOP's belief that you've now become a phone buddy who can be called at the drop of a hat. Future attempts to shape the relationship into something more profitable such as a genuine attorney-client one may be resented. It's like putting out before you've even been kissed on a blind date.

You may know the answer to a question, but you're under no obligation to provide it. You should've been graduated from school by now, and you're not a contestant on Win Ben Stein's Money. Resist the urge to hand out answers to queries like "Do I have to pay child support if my ex-wife moves to Montana?" Go ahead and answer questions like "What's the highest court in the land?" if you're feeling civic-minded, but you don't have the facts or an attorney-client relationship to permit an adequate answer to the child support question. Stifle those urges to be the smartest kid in the classroom. Instead, let the PCOP know that there's more than a yes-or-no answer. Decide for yourself if you're going to be AskJeeves.com or a lawyer out there makin' a living.

jennifer j. rose is a lawyer-writer in Morelia, Michoacan, who sometimes wishes she had a 900-number at the office. She reads her e-mail at jenniferrose@abanet.org.

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