I have read many times that the number one complaint filed with the Florida Bar concerns attorneys not returning the phone calls of their clients. I assume if this is the number one complaint filed with the Bar, it means that it happens a lot and it happens with lawyers in all kinds of firms, large and small. Being an attorney myself, I felt I might be in a position to take a close look at this phenomenon and offer some advice to clients who find themselves in the frustrating position of needing to speak with their attorney and not being able to contact them for whatever reason. To do this properly, I must first differentiate the attorney who is busy and cannot return phone calls, from the attorney who is negligent and doesn’t return phone calls but could.
An attorney’s day can take many forms. It can be an office day, a court day, a deposition day, a mediation day, a combination of these days all in one, or about one hundred other variations on this theme. Being an attorney requires that one be able to multi-task and work a calendar with precision to ensure everything is getting done and is coordinated with the many other parties who are involved in each part of the process of managing the legal affairs of others. I don’t know many attorneys who work less than 10 hours a day. Most carry PDAs (electronic calendar and email gadgets) and work on the road in between appointments and on weekends.
That being said, it is possible to return phone calls in a reasonable time. Admittedly, there is such a thing as over-scheduling an attorney’s day and there is also such a thing as an attorney taking on more work than he or she can handle. Attorneys are human after all, and not all of them are the most efficient time managers.
So what is a “reasonable” time within which a client should expect a return phone call from his or her attorney? The short answer is, “It depends,” because a reasonable time is different depending on what the attorney has on the agenda, i.e., if an attorney is in trial or preparing for a trial, in heavy discovery on a case, on vacation, or just working on her or his typical caseload at the office.
If an attorney is in trial, a client should expect that the attorney will return calls a day or two after the trial has concluded. Trials take up all of an attorney’s and her or his staff’s time. There are so many details and items of evidence and issues that must be managed and resolved before, during, and immediately after the trial, it’s nearly impossible to manage anything else without damaging the case at hand; however, if it is a trial lasting longer than three or four days, or if the call is a true emergency, the client should expect that the attorney can return a quick phone call, send a short email to the client, or have a staff person call and act as intermediary between the client and attorney. If the client has one of these true emergencies, the attorney should be able to have a representative (another attorney or staff person) step in and handle the issue as best they can until the attorney is free to take over.
If an attorney is not in trial or other complicated preparation phase of a case, a client should be able to expect a return phone call within 48 hours of leaving a message. This is a general rule of thumb, and my personal opinion, not a formal rule of which I am aware. At Cowden Law, our rule is to return phone calls the same day, even if they occur in the evening or on weekends. If the attorney at Cowden Law is unable to return the phone call the same day, a staff member will return the call and do his or her best to take care of the client and coordinate with the attorney as needed and possible.
Some firms have a policy of screening all calls through staff to ensure the attorney is left alone to handle all the cases they have, without the interruptions caused by client phone calls. I have heard that a lot of clients don’t like this policy because they want to speak directly with their attorneys when they have questions or problems. The firms who have these policies generally institute them because they work with a lot of contingency fee or fixed fee cases, and those clients tend to call much more frequently with non-critical issues than hourly fee clients do. For my explanation as to this phenomenon, check out my earlier article on this web site “The Difference Between Fees and Costs.”
Of course, there are always bad apples out there, and the law field is no exception. There are lawyers who neglect their clients and their cases and who have no good reason for not returning phone calls in a reasonable time. I read about these attorneys in my Bar Journal newspaper, where they list all the attorneys who have been disciplined by the Florida Bar for not adequately managing their client’s cases or their clients themselves.
Whether you are the client of a very busy attorney or an attorney who is being negligent, I can offer you some advice for getting return phone calls in a reasonable amount of time. The first step is to realize that your attorney may be involved in one of the situations that I mentioned earlier that makes it impossible for her or him to return your phone call in the same day. Feel free to ask the staff member who answers the phone if the attorney is in trial or in some other involved process that precludes the attorney from handling your issue. You may want to consider leaving a type of deadline for the attorney to call you back in a non-emergency situation, wording it for example as,
“This is [insert your name]. I’m calling you because [insert your reason]. This is not an emergency, so if you are busy, I won’t expect a call back until [insert a day and date 4 days from today]. If you are not busy, of course I’d appreciate a call back as soon as possible. Thanks very much.”
If you feel your situation is more urgent, a message might sound something more like,
“This is [insert your name]. I’m calling you because I have a very urgent situation that needs your immediate attention. It is [insert your reason]. This is what I consider an emergency situation, so I would appreciate a call back from either you or a staff person by [insert what you consider a reasonable time]. Thanks very much for your understanding. I apologize for any inconvenience this may cause you.” [Note: This suggested phraseology is a nod to my personal credo: “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar”. The apology shows you respect your attorney’s and the staff’s time.]
The key to using the “emergency situation call” is to never use it unless it’s absolutely necessary. If a client calls with them all the time, he is going to be just like the Boy Who Cried Wolf, and will suffer the same consequences as the boy in that fable. It’s only human nature to treat a person with the same respect that person has given others. Calling with frequent false emergencies is a sign to some attorneys that the client does not respect his or the staff’s time. It will also have some bearing on what the “reasonable time” is within which a call must be returned to this client; the more a client Cries Wolf, the more an attorney feels he is justified in returning that client’s calls within a longer period of time. While it may not be fair in the client’s mind, it is human nature to react this way.
A last resort, for the client who has used the above techniques to no avail, is to send a letter. To make it have the most force, sending it via registered mail is certain to get the attorney’s attention. Again, I must emphasize that this is a last resort method, and should only be used once. If it doesn’t work, it’s probably time to find a new lawyer who has more time or interest in handling your case. At Cowden Law, we have inherited many cases from attorneys who didn’t return phone calls of their clients. We emphasize what we call “VIP Service” with our clients, and it’s appealing to our clients that we focus so much of our attention on timely and convenient communications with them. Talk to your lawyer before you hire her or him to find out what their policies are with regard to client communications. Do they use email? If they do, you might have found an easier avenue to use to contact them. Do they use instant messaging? If you both do, and your attorney is comfortable with this platform, you have another means to use for communication. Just remember, you want to also talk to your attorney about maintaining confidentiality in your case, because not all of these avenues of communication may be appropriate for your situation.
The key to effective and timely communications between attorney and client is to have a dialog about the issue at the beginning of the relationship. Attorneys should set expectations for their clients in their first meeting together so the client knows what to expect. Clients need to be aware of and understanding of the attorney’s responsibilities to all of their clients and firm itself, so they don’t have unrealistic expectations of what an attorney can and can’t do to communicate with them. Lastly, if clients find they are unhappy with how promptly their attorney is returning calls, they should take the bull by the horns and deal with it. Use the techniques outlined in this article, and as a last resort, send the registered letter mentioned. Sometimes, finding a new lawyer is the only option left, but it can turn out to be a very good option for many who find their new lawyer is a good communicator.
To find out more about Cowden Law’s VIP Service, browse our web site and read the articles on various subjects. They’ve all been written for the non-lawyer and hopefully you’ll find them interesting and informative. www.cowdenlawfirm.com