General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionSolo Newsletter

Time Bandits

By jennifer j. rose

Guarding against people who pester for free advice by phone or e-mail demands constant vigilance. No matter how hard a receptionist tries to screen callers, some always manage to sneak through to a busy lawyer's office. And often the lawyer who answers her own phone has no alternative but to take the call or respond to the mail. (There are ways to disguise your voice, like they do in the movies, but these are iffy-not to mention tacky.) And some callers have more persuasive powers to get a lawyer to talk than police interrogators.

An effective defensive strategy and a few ground rules can often help separate tire-kicking Time Bandits from Potentially Paying Clients.

  • Just because you've got the time, you don't have to share it with the bandits. Having nothing better to do is no justification for wasting time that could be better spent reading the newspaper, surfing the Net, or power-napping.
  • Return all phone calls from unknown sources at a specific time each day. "I'll return your call at 4 p.m." can vaporize the caller whose attention span is probably taxed by an episode of South Park.
  • Keep a tight grip on the reins of conversation; remain polite but discourage chitchat or multiple (free!) queries. If a caller asks for residency requirements for divorce, answer. End the call if another question follows.
  • Limit the number of calls you'll accept from certain individuals over a month, a year, or even your lifetime. "This offer is limited to one per household" applies to law offices, too.
  • A kitchen timer, ringing audibly on your desk after five minutes (or less), tracks time for you and sends a much stronger message to a caller than a silent, sand-filled hourglass.
  • Create an FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) page. Upload it to your website, or mail it to callers.
  • Use the paper ploy to get the caller into your office so you can inspect and interpret hard copies of documents. You can't see that summons or eviction notice over the phone; you're not Superman.
  • Just say "No." You don't have to talk to the tire-kicker if you don't want to. Memorize this: "The nature of your call demands more attention that I can give it on the phone." Insist the client make an appointment.
  • Set your boundaries and defend them. Clearly and unequivocally let the caller know your limits-you have only yourself to blame if the call runs long.
  • If all else fails, in midsentence, silently end the call, as if the line's been disconnected.
  • Bottom line: Your time is the most valuable asset in your office. Give it the defense it deserves; it's irreplaceable.
jennifer j. rose is a lawyer-writer in Morelia, Michoacan, Mexico, who reads her e-mail at



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