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Improve your client relationships with these 4 unbendable telephone rules

Whoʼs calling? Oh, itʼs you. Sorry, heʼs not in.

The ubiquitous complaint about lawyers is that they never seem be available when a client calls, often don’t return calls on time, and sometimes don’t return them at all.

That habit is so common and so irritating to clients that the rare attorney who does have good phone skills “makes the million-dollar roundtable very quickly,” says Judy Garmaise, MSW, CSW, a business and sales trainer and consultant in Boca Raton, FL.

“Clients hate to be ignored, and returning their calls is just as important to the revenues as is searching out new clients.”

Here are four unbendable telephone rules.

Rule #1: Never force a client to leave a voicemail message.

“Voicemail for a law firm is lethal,” Garmaise says. A firm’s success relies on relationships, and nothing says the client relationship is unimportant to the attorney like a voice mail message. It says “I’m not here for you.”

“Clients should always hear a live voice, even if it’s the voice of an answering service.”

Send a call to voicemail only if the client requests it, and that’s usually when someone wants to leave a detailed message or a sensitive message.

And even then, don’t do so without saying that the message box might be full and that the attorney may not be checking the voicemail right away. And in the next sentence offer the option of leaving a condensed written message: “You may want to leave a message with me so someone can get back to you.”

Rule #2: Never give the impression that calls are being screened:

Client: Is Attorney Smith in?

Office: May I ask who’s calling?

Client: This is Judy Jones.


Office: Oh, he’s in a meeting. Can I take a message?

What Judy Jones hears: Attorney Smith is avoiding you!

There’s an easy way to screen calls with discretion, Garmaise says. Instead of asking who’s calling and then saying he’s unavailable, turn it around: Attorney Smith is in a meeting right now. May I ask who’s calling?

If Judy Jones is someone the attorney has been waiting to hear from, follow up with I believe Attorney Smith will be back in 10 to 15 minutes. He can give you a call then. That’s far more credible than Oh, he just walked in the door.

Rule #3: Never give a client a callback time for the attorney that’s not absolutely doable and absolutely certain.

Garmaise gives the example of Attorney A will be in court until 2 p.m. but she’ll call you as soon as she gets back to the office and no later than 3 p.m.

If the attorney gets delayed at court or tied up in traffic and can’t return the call on time, count on it that the client will be infuriated. Says Garmaise, “A promise has been broken and the attorney’s integrity is shot.”

Extend the call-back time, Garmaise says. If possible, extend it for 24 hours. That’s enough to cover any number of delays. And if the attorney calls sooner than that, the client is pleased and flattered.

Rule #4: Never fail to return the call by the promised time.

If it turns out that the set time isn’t workable, the attorney should still call the client and set a better time to talk. Be gracious about it: I just have a few minutes right now, but I’d like to discuss this with you in detail. If you can bear with me, I’d like to call you at 2 p.m. tomorrow, and we can devote a full hour to this.

That’s not a rejection. The attorney has just said I care about your matter enough to set aside time to discuss it. The client will appreciate the fact that the attorney wants to give full attention to the matter.

Many times a callback gets put off because the attorney doesn’t have an answer to the client’s question, Garmaise says. And that’s no excuse. That client still needs an on-time callback, even if it’s to say I don’t know and am still researching it. No client will object to that. After all, the attorney is on top of the matter.

A good response is We tried to get that answer for you but couldn’t. Even so, I wanted to call and tell you where we are at in this stage of the process.


It’s more the thought than the action that determines the client’s reaction. By following these four rules, the client feels like the first item on the attorney’s agenda. Instead of words of frustration, you can count on getting a sincere answer of thank you so much.

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