October 3, 2012
It should go without saying that attorneys should return phone calls, e-mails and other communications received from their clients promptly and, in fact, failure to do so will not only lead to loss of new business opportunities (and eventually the client) but also expose an attorney to potential disciplinary action. Clients need to be able to rely on their attorneys to be within close reach whenever a problem with an existing engagement arises or the client identifies another project that requires legal attention. I recently read an interview with John Petrovich, the General Counsel of the Alfred Mann Foundation in Santa Clarita, CA, that appeared in the San Francisco Daily Journal on October 25, 2010, and he emphasized that many of the issues that he cared about most with regard to working with outside counsel had to do with “communication.” Specifically, he said: “The reason all of us carry around iPhones and Blackberrys is to stay in touch, so I hate sending an email to someone, asking a question and not hearing back from them for three or four days. I don’t need an answer right away, but maybe just a quick email saying, ‘Can’t get to this now. Can I talk to you Wednesday’ That kind of response I would expect within the day, if not within an hour or two.” I once heard another attorney argue that it was “OK” not to return phone calls and email messages within a couple of hours, even just to acknowledge receipt and provide a target date and time for a detailed response, because clients want to have an attorney who is “really busy”. Don’t believe this—when the client reaches out he or she want to feel like no one else matters!
Attorneys should plan their work schedule to fit the requirements of the client. In most cases, clients want their legal problems dealt with at the beginning of their workday, rather than at the end. So, if the client is in a different time zone, advance planning is a must. However, the necessary step for becoming more than just a good lawyer and ascending to the level of trusted business counselor is arranging to always be available and accessible to clients so that there is no unreasonable delay in response. In light of the technology that is now available attorneys can offer their most important clients “24/7” availability through “smart” mobile phones that not only provide voice access but also allow client communications via email and text messaging from almost anywhere. It is important though for the attorney to establish some parameters so that client expectations can be managed and the attorney can maintain his or her sanity. For example, the attorney should be careful and thoughtful about which clients get their cell and home phone numbers and should tell clients in advance that there may be situations where the attorney may not answer immediately or may have to ask the client to set a separate time to talk that is more convenient. As discussed above, clients will generally understand this approach if it is laid out in advance and the attorney does get back to them when promised in the response to the client’s original message.
Just as important as providing continuous access to clients is the quality of the response that clients receive when they do reach out for help. Great attorneys—business counselors—set aside the time to focus all of their attention on the client and listen to the client’s concerns so that immediate advice can be rendered and a plan of action for handling the problem or project can be mapped out during the very first exchange of information. If the attorney cannot break away from he or she is doing at the time the client makes contact the attorney should set a time for a further conversation and fulfill his or her promise to talk to the client at that time without fail! If resolution of the problem requires assistance from others the attorney should have access to all the information he or she needs to get in touch with those who will be supporting the project and should contact them in a timely fashion to get them engaged in servicing the client. This is a crucial step since any delays among the supporting cast, including not being able to find them when they are needed, will undermine the attorney’s efforts to provide the level of service necessary for business counselor status. The attorney should inform members of the supporting team about his or her expectations and replace those members who are unable or unwilling to provide the same level of response that the attorney has committed to provide to the client.