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Is it too much to ask a law firm to answer the phone?

October 3, 2010

There’s a growing segment in our legal profession who believe that innovation in law practice management is all about efficiencies that make it easier and less expensive to practice law. The problem with this thinking is that it’s all about how can I make it easier for me, the lawyer, as opposed to thinking how I, as a lawyer, can best serve my clients and prospective clients.

The latest in the make it easy for me and strip away professionalism in the law sadly comes from the ABA Journal. As part of its Legal Rebel’s Project, the Journal asked solo practitioners to write an essay on “What innovation will be most valuable to you in your future practice as a solo practitioner?” The recipient of the $5,000 top prize went to Kirk Halpin who dreamed of a ‘Full-Functioning Digital Messaging Assistant.’

The innovation that will be most valuable to me as a solo practitioner in the future is a system to integrate incoming telephone calls with outgoing voice mail messages and also allow full interaction with knowing immediate availability and scheduling future appointments.

Instead of behaving as a professional would and having a person at your law firm answer the phone and ask how they may help, we get this in the name of innovation.

The third component of this innovation will allow existing clients to automatically schedule phone calls or in-person meetings at your office through the integration of your telephone and your electronic calendar software. If you are not available when an existing client calls, then in lieu of them leaving a voice mail message, they will have the option of entering their client number and their passcode (which you would have e-mailed to them previously) and the system would provide them with limited access to your electronic calendar software. They could enter the date and time that they would like to meet with you along with the estimated time needed for the appointment and the system will tell them if you are available at that time. If you are not available, then the system would tell them the next available time and date, and they would have the option of accepting this appointment and then indicating whether this was an in-person meeting or a phone call. Once the existing client accepts the appointment, then it will automatically appear on your calendar with the name of the client and the time/date/length of the appointment. There will also be a full dashboard of behind-the-scenes tools and rules for scheduling clients that will integrate with your electronic contact or client software system. This third component of the innovation could also be available through a password-protected feature on your website or through a separate scheduling website.

No wonder Scott Greenfield questioned the ABA Journal’s recognizing as innovation what Greenfield labeled as voicemail on steroids.

What a dream world, where lawyers need no longer have actual contact with clients and can use technology to pretend to cater to their clients’ needs without the need for actual communication.

Greenfield’s right that this ‘dream’ is a total failure in client service.

How wonderfully routine and convenient. Except that it demonstrates the antithesis of client service. Emergency? A week from Tuesday. A serious question? Whenever. The ten minute meeting for nothing, or for a serious discussion that requires two hours. It’s all about what’s good for the lawyer, only appearing convenient to the client, because everyone knows how much clients want to be reduced to numbers and passcodes.

Lawyers spend lots of money on marketing. Law firms talk about excellent client service. They then turn around and in the name of progress have phone answering systems that are a total turn off to people.

I called one LexBlog lawyer client and was asked to hold 5 times at 30 second increments by an obvious answering service. I did what anyone would do. I hung up. Don’t laugh, many of you have automated phone answering systems that are as equal a turn off.

Reminds me of calling my local small bank on my Island a few years ago. I got an answering machine instructing me to leave a message and the bank would call me back. After hanging up I called the bank president with whom I reported in a voicemail what happened. I got a call back from his assistant who wanted to ‘investigate’ what happened. No investigation needed I told her. When I call my bank during business hours, I expect someone to answer. The bank failed this spring.

People calling law firms are dealing with substantial and, in many cases, the most trying experience in their lives. These folks want to speak to someone. If not a lawyer, at least someone who can help. Often a non-lawyer can respond to the person’s immediate concern. If speaking to a lawyer is needed, help means explaining when the lawyer will be available.

Simple client service and professionalism demands this. Some how. Same way. Your law firm needs to be equipped to answer the phone.

Rather than viewing voicemail on steroids as innovation, you ought to hope like heck your competition does.

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