If My Lawyer’s Going to Multitask, I Want a Discount!

By Daniel S. Coolidge and Bruce L. Dorner

In our hyperactive, obsessively connected world, we can talk on the phone, text message, read a computer screen, and meet with a client all at the same time. So, there you are in your office meeting with a client. Your secretary is not in the office. The phone rings. Do you take the call?

Well, it depends. . . .

The basic rule is that you owe your client your undivided attention. Maybe “guideline” is a better term. Because there are exceptions to that rule, for sure. But the exceptions should be ones that cannot be handled by your answering machine.

There is clear scientific evidence that each person has a finite quantity of attention—if you spend some of it on multi-tasking, there is less of it to spare for a primary task. When you focus on one thing, you miss things to which you are not devoting full attention — inattentional blindness. In one dramatic example, viewers were shown a short video of eight people (four in white T-shirts, four in black) standing in a circle passing a basketball back and forth. Viewers were asked to count the number of times someone in a white shirt caught the ball. After the video, they were asked if they had seen anything unusual — almost every one missed the fact that someone in a gorilla suit walked into the center of the circle, waved at the camera, and then walked off.

When you divert your attention from the client, you are sending two messages. One is that the client is not as important as the distraction, and the second is that the client may get charged for your diversion. Moreover, you run an increasing risk that something may get overlooked.

Just because the phone rings or your BlackBerry buzzes does not mean you should shift a portion of your attention from the client to an electronic device. If you have a secretary or paralegal, you can use your staff to perform triage on incoming calls and screen them for real emergencies. (They should be trained enough to know what to ask and how to identify a real emergency.) If it’s the judge on the line, you take the call, apologizing to the client—he or she should understand the necessity here.

But what if you are alone—no staff. What do you do then? Client confidentiality mandates that your answering machine should not be audible to the client sitting in your office, nor should Caller ID be visible. So how do you screen your calls? What do you do if you are waiting for an important call? Some people take the position that they will let the answering machine take the call and return calls after the meeting. Others feel that attorney availability is important for client relations, and you should take calls even during a client meeting if no one else is available to do so.

If you simply must answer your phone, explain the situation to the clients you are meeting with and assure them they will not be billed for time spent answering the phone and getting back on track with your meeting. And when you do answer the phone, briefly explain the situation to the caller and offer to call back (unless it is a real emergency).

Even if you don’t, as a rule, take calls or e-mails during a client meeting, you might make an exception if you are waiting for “the call” from a judge or opposing counsel on a matter going to hearing tomorrow. In such cases, you should notify the client in your office at the start of your meeting that there may be a brief interruption that cannot be avoided and, of course, that the client will not be charged for the interruption. If the call comes in, excuse yourself and take the call in another room.

What if you pick up the phone and it is not “the call” you’ve been eagerly awaiting. It’s another client. You tell her that you are in a meeting, but she utters the proverbial expression, “it will only take a minute.” What do you do? You tell her firmly and resolutely that “I would not interrupt a meeting with you to take another call, and I know that you would want my undivided attention if I were meeting with you. Please give me a number where you can be reached, and I will call you back as soon as my meeting is finished.”

Unless you are trying to drive clients away, make sure you do return the call as soon as your meeting is over (or at the time you arranged with the client). One of the most frequent complaints from clients is that their attorney doesn’t return their calls. Knowing that they will have your undivided attention during a meeting (you have shown them how you do it) and that their call is in fact important to you is one of the best ways to retain client loyalty.

As in any profession, if the caller has a real emergency that cannot wait, you should excuse yourself from the meeting room and take the call in a private area. Again, before leaving the meeting, apologize to the client and affirm that he will not be charged for the interruption. And be certain that the call is truly an emergency, and not simply a demanding client. Among your obligations to your other clients is the ability to handle your tougher clients. If a client calls wolf too often, it is time to bring out the disengagement letter.

Although we are aware that younger lawyers are used to multitasking and doing their research while answering a phone call, it is simply unprofessional and possibly unethical to do this during a client meeting when attention is to be focused on the client. During surgery, when I am on the table, I expect my doctor to focus her entire attention on my needs. Should a client expect any less of his attorney? What kind of message does it give clients if you are glancing at your computer screen while they are explaining their problems? Are you so bored by the clients’ problems that you are looking for something possibly more interesting to arrive in your e-mail?

Time shared during client meetings, whether in person or on the phone, should be the exception and not the rule. If your staff person goes to lunch between noon and 1:00 pm, don’t plan client meetings for that time, when the staff is not available to handle the phone. If you are normally out to lunch during the same period and must meet with a client, perhaps a quiet corner of a local restaurant would serve, or even consider having a sandwich at the client’s office. In that case, you are not tempted to answer the phone (assuming you have turned off your cell phone!) and can rely on the fact that your other clients already know your office is closed during that time. (It is also important to train your clients to understand that because they send you an e-mail at 8:30 in the evening does not mean they will receive a response from you first thing in the morning. You must make your clients understand that because a message is delivered instantaneously does not mean that you have the opportunity to read it instantly on its arrival. If a message is critical, they should call your office.)

Consider standing before your state ethics board explaining why it is ethical to bill one client for a meeting while at the same time you are billing another for answering an e-mail. Is it any different from charging two clients for the same research hours?

And, please stop glancing at your BlackBerry or Treo during the meeting. The same applies for the computer screen flashing the updates of your stock portfolio.

What about when you are on a phone call with a client? Is it okay to multitask then? Recalling the concern raised earlier over inattentional blindness, you run the risk of missing something a client may be saying if you are talking while scanning your e-mail. Can you really afford to do that, to take that kind of risk? It may be a different thing if you are talking about your kids’ vacations with the client, rather than talking about tax planning.

The basic rule for an attorney seems to be a combination of ethical behavior, good manners, and attention to detail. Clients like to be heard—and they like to think that theirs is the most important job on your plate. Any behavior that takes away from that impression is probably bad business, if not unethical. Although there are moments when you simply have to share your time, you should plan to avoid such moments as much as possible. Remember to treat your clients the way you would like to be treated.

Daniel S. Coolidge is a recovering large-firm lawyer, now a patent attorney with Coolidge & Graves, PLLC, in Keene, New Hampshire; he may be reached at . Bruce L. Dorner is a sole practitioner with a primary office in Londonderry, New Hampshire, and remote offices wherever he finds a place to connect to the Internet; he may be reached at .

Copyright 2007

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