We all have had that one client who calls and calls and calls ad nauseam. If you have found yourself on the unfortunate side of this challenge, you are in luck. Help is on the way. You can curb this behavior without sacrificing your law license or online reviews.
First, it is important to discuss how this situation may have started in the first place. As lawyers, we know we have an ethical duty to communicate with clients. A lack of communication is one of the most common reasons for client complaints. As a result, some lawyers take to being overly accessible out of fear of a complaint. Others do so for a perceived marketing advantage. Still others are pushed into this situation because they are not quite sure what to do. This article will give you some ideas to address this challenge.
Barring the extreme cases, a client who constantly calls you is typically a sign of one of three pitfalls:
- You have not clearly defined your expectations around communication.
- You have not effectively communicated or enforced your expectations.
- You have not created strong enough systems to facilitate your expectations.
Pitfall 1: Undefined Expectations Around Communication
Lack of boundaries invites lack of respect. —Anonymous
When you have not articulated your expectations clearly, you invite people to communicate with you as they see fit. For many legal consumers, their interactions with you and your law practice are among the few interactions they have ever had with a lawyer or the legal system. Even if they are more familiar with the process, they do not automatically know how you want them to engage with you and your firm. You get to draw the line in the sand about what is or is not permissible. If you are unclear about how, when, where, and why attorney-client communication should occur, it is impossible for your clients to know what is or is not an appropriate level of communication. This lack of clarity is detrimental to both of you.
What to Do Next:
- Adjust your mindset. As a solo lawyer, you receive a lot of mixed messaging about how accessible you need to be to run a profitable law firm. From the reports about legal consumers hiring the first attorney to pick up the phone to the reminders that lack of communication is one of the top complaints against lawyers, you are conditioned to believe that your success is tied to being available. Here is the problem: If you are always on the phone, it is hard to get the work done. A successful, sustainable, and scalable law practice is built on solid systems. Like other aspects of your practice, you need a system to manage calls. Depending on the stage of your business, you cannot afford to operate without a system.
- Clarify your expectations. Write down your expectations for communication. When should clients contact you with questions or concerns? How should they contact you? Do you want them to contact you through the client portal? When should they email, text, or call, if ever? How soon should they expect a response? What constitutes an emergency? You may have answers to all these questions and more in your mind, but your client needs your guidance to determine what is or is not appropriate. Common sense is not common, and people have varying definitions of reasonable and emergency. If you have not taken the time to acclimate your client to your expectations, they will draw on whatever other experiences they have had elsewhere. Unless you want to be bound by someone else’s expectations, you need to clarify your own.
Pitfall 2: Lack of Communication or Enforcement Regarding Your Expectations
Clear is kind. —Brene Brown
Perhaps you started your attorney-client relationship without clearly communicating your expectations. Or you shared your communication expectations but, over time, failed to enforce them for one reason or another. If you find yourself on the wrong side of either situation, it is time to reset expectations with your constantly calling client.
What to do next:
- Implement a firm communication policy. One way to reset expectations is to implement a firm-wide communication policy. This is particularly helpful if you are uncomfortable having a direct conversation with your client about their communication methods. Once you have clarified your expectations and set them down in writing, you can share them as part of your new and improved client communication policy. For most clients, an email or video may be sufficient to explain the changes to your communication procedures. For other clients, it may be worth scheduling a one-on-one call to discuss the changes, gather input, and address any questions or concerns. If you are asking your clients to use new technology, you likely want to include a walkthrough video or screenshots on how to use it.
- Plan your response to a breach of the policy in advance. Whenever you implement change, you are likely to experience some friction and resistance. People will forget or return to their old habits. Some will resist, if not rebel against, the new system. Others will adjust almost effortlessly. Having a plan in place for how you will respond to any one of these responses will help you navigate the transition with more confidence. This is also a great time to identify the clients who may have more difficulty adjusting to your new policy and provide them with the necessary tools to adopt it. This may take the form of initiating additional conversations to get buy-in, walking them through the nuts and bolts of how to comply with the communication policy, or simply extending more grace and patience with them (and yourself) as you adjust.
Pitfall 3: Insufficient Systems Supporting Your Communication Policy
A bad system will beat a good person every time. —W. Edwards Deming
Lastly, you may have a clear communication policy that you share with your clients . . . repeatedly. You may need more support to execute the policy you set up. If you do not have the right system in place to support your communication expectation, it will be hard to execute consistently. This is especially the case if you are still heavily involved in all aspects of the system.
What to do next:
- Create a process for managing client communication. Every representation has key milestones that occur where client communication is required or recommended. For example, you are required to communicate any settlement agreement information with your client. It is also recommended that you communicate with your clients after they have signed your engagement letter and paid your retainer. Outline the key milestones in each matter and create communication templates to share that information at the right time. Examples may include when you file the case, when you serve the opposing party, when you schedule hearings, when you commence discovery, when you schedule mediation, and the like. For transactional attorneys, examples may include when you complete due diligence, when you complete a legal audit or review contracts or other important documents, when you file a trademark application, or when you register a business or file a registration statement with the SEC. From intake to off-boarding, there are a plethora of communication touchpoints that you can plan and prepare to share in advance. When you know the points in your client’s journey where they become more anxious or tend to want more feedback from you, you can anticipate their need and design a process that works for both of you.
- Leverage technology and a team. Once you know the key touchpoints and updates you generally share, you can leverage technology and your team to communicate with your clients on your behalf. This may take the form of monthly status updates that share what has occurred or has not occurred. You also can use schedulers such as Calendly, Acuity Scheduling, or even your law practice management software to schedule status update calls on dates and times that work with your schedule. You can use a client relationship management system (CRM) to create triggers for when you need to contact a client. For your higher-touch clients, you can create standing calls that occur at regular intervals, so they know they have a dedicated time to speak with you. This sometimes alleviates the need to call all the time because they already know they have time to talk with you if needed. You can leverage client portals as a place where clients can contact you whenever something comes up, and you can then review their concerns and determine how best to respond: give a quick answer, schedule a call, schedule a meeting, or send a resource. If you have a team or can afford to outsource your phone calls to a receptionist company, you can have someone else field client calls for you. To be most effective, this does require that you train them on how to determine when a caller needs to connect to you immediately, get scheduled for a call or a meeting, or be directed to a resource or your client portal.
As the leader of your law practice, you get to decide how clients engage with you and your firm. With that ability comes the responsibility to clarify your expectations for yourself and your clients and build the infrastructure you need to protect your boundaries. Setting and enforcing clear expectations around communication permits you to attend to your clients and their legal matters in the most efficient and effective way.
Published in GPSolo eReport, Volume 12, Number 6, January 2023. © 2023 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association or the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division.