When I first started practicing law, I was taught that responsiveness to clients was a critical way of maintaining good business relationships. And good relationships translate into new business as well since word of mouth is a powerful tool. Today, this golden rule—to respond quickly—still applies. Yet the way we communicate has changed drastically, as have client expectations regarding availability.
20 years ago, returning client phone calls within 24 hours was a reasonable expectation. Clients appreciated it when you responded promptly. When you were out of the office in court or away on vacation, there was no expectation of communication. Weekends were sacred time, except for the odd occasion when you went into the office—and perhaps met your client there—on a Saturday or Sunday to prepare for trial.
In this age of instantaneous everything, however, a phone call returned within 24 hours does not pass muster. Some clients are upset when you don’t respond within the hour. Email is the preferred mode of communication, but texting is a close second. Clients feel that you should be reachable at all times—weekends, nights, and on vacation—and why shouldn’t they? With everyone from toddlers to octogenarians carrying smartphones, there is an expectation that you will read and respond to communications right away.
Given the bar that has been set, how does an attorney manage multiple clients and maintain any semblance of a personal life? My colleagues handle this in different ways. Some turn their phones off when they leave the office. Some carry two smartphones, one for personal use, one for business. Some spend all their time at the office and home answering client communications. Others ignore client communications until they are ready to respond. In my view, none of these are workable long-term solutions. Instead, you must learn to be responsive while maintaining time that is off limits and solely reserved for personal and family activities.
The best way to do this is to set ground rules at the outset of the representation. Tell clients up front that their communication is important and that you will respond as quickly as possible, but perhaps not immediately. It is also useful to inform clients of your preferred methods of communication. Email is a great way to communicate because an easily retrievable record of the conversation can be saved in a client’s digital file. Texting, on the other hand, is not a great way to communicate because of the informal nature and the difficulty of saving the exchange. I would prefer to speak with a client by phone and answer a question directly and efficiently rather than text back and forth.
In addition to discussing the best modes of communication, it is also important to let clients know when they might hear from you. For example, if you have a busy trial practice, tell clients that you will be unavailable while you’re in court but that you will get back to them as soon as you are free. If you don’t respond to emails on weekends, let clients know so they’re not waiting to hear from you. Similarly, let clients know when you will be out of the office for an extended period of time. If you will not be able to get back to them immediately, make sure there is someone in your office who can cover for you. Finally, if you find yourself unexpectedly busy or unable to immediately respond to a client communication, a simple one-line reply letting clients know that you received their message and will get back to them soon is often enough to put their minds at ease. Just letting a client know that you are there and that you have not forgotten him or her can certainly help maintain the relationship.
While the definition of responsiveness has changed over time and will undoubtedly continue to change in the future, a little common sense and courtesy will guide you in the right direction when it comes to client communication. Establishing reasonable guidelines at the outset about how you will respond and relay information will set clear expectations so clients understand how and when they will hear from you. Also, letting clients know that you value their input and questions—and that you will take adequate time to fully consider what they are saying—will also help establish a successful working relationship.