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  Your Practice Management Advisor

Taming the Beast: Managing Your Clients' Expectations in a 24-7 World

September 2009
Learning to use technology effectively is important not only for managing clients' expectations, but also for keeping your work/life balance in check.

It now seems to be a commonly accepted theory that technology has caused everyone to be more stressed despite its promises to create more time for leisure. We no longer get relief from the pressures of work and clients. The world is getting smaller and we are working constantly because we have clients with whom we can communicate in every time zone. Technology, however, is not the problem. We are the problem. The technology has not caused us to move at a seemingly quicker and more frenetic pace but rather how we use or abuse the technology. Technology is just a tool. How we use the tools determine how we work and live.

We need to create procedures so we can "teach" our clients how we can help them even more. This article is not about technology but how to use the technology.

Simply because you can be accessible 24-7 does not necessarily mean that you should be. For the vast majority of clients, there is no need to answer an email instantly. In fact, I would be concerned if my attorney responded to me instantly. Instant responses cause me to wonder if 1) he/she was not very busy and/or 2) did not give the answer sufficient thought.

When explaining to clients what they can expect from you regarding communication, you want to let them know that you or someone from your office will return all phone calls within 24 hours (or whatever your standard is). Also explain that you may have to call after 5 PM. Ask the clients if they can be contacted after "work" hours or at home or on weekends. Ask if they can be contacted on their cell phones. This shows respect for their time. Ask them if they want to communicate via email. Some clients do not want to use email. These questions should be made part of your new client form.

If you give your email address to clients, then you need to establish guidelines for using email. First you need to decide how you are going to bill for an email response and share that information with the client. Some people believe that because email is so quick, any answers received will not be billed. If you are going to send a lengthy reply, then it should be treated the same way you would treat a response by regular mail. In many cases, after the initial meeting much of the communication may be done via email and should be billed as such.

It is important to tell clients you use email and will "respond" within 24 hours. You need to stress that a response does not necessarily mean that you may have the answer to their question. A response is not always an answer. You need to inform them that some questions may take more time than others. To answer too hastily would not be in their best interest. If the answers to some of the email questions are detailed, you might want to also call the client to discuss the answers personally. This is good way to solidify relationships because this is sometimes lost with email.

Another rule I recommend is to tell clients they should not send any email message that requires immediate attention. Any emergency or urgent matter should be communicated via the phone.

There may be some reason you have a client or a particular case that may sometimes need your immediate email attention. You may want to consider setting up one or even two separate email addresses you can use for those unusual circumstances. You can just give it out for special situations. This also makes the client feel important, which can be a marketing tool.

If you are going to tell clients not to send emergency or urgent messages via email then you must define emergency and urgent. What is an emergency to your client may be a simple matter to you.

If your relationship with your clients is so tenuous that you need to be available at any moment, you are doing something wrong and all the technology in the world will not help.

RULES:

Here are some rules which you can actually consider using. As always, there are exceptions and caveats. Some may be appropriate and some may not. If you have already allowed some clients to access your private space and time at any time day or night, it may be difficult, if not impossible, to break the habit. In some rare cases, it might even be critical to allow them this type of access but not for all clients in all situations.

Unlike other "administrative" rules and procedures, some clients may have to be treated differently depending upon their case or situation. Having given my disclaimers, let's see if we can set some guidelines.

EMAIL: Many firms and many clients use email. You need to set parameters for the use of email. This is necessary for confidentiality issues as well as quality of life issues.

RULE: The Yevics Law Firm uses email to correspond with clients. Someone from the firm will respond to all emails within 24 hours. However, we may not be able to answer your question within those 24 hours especially if it requires some research. All emails will be billed the same as a phone call.

(Note: If you do not bill for return phone calls, this is not necessary. You may not wish to put this in your procedures.)

RULE: The Yevics Law Firm will NOT send any confidential information via email. We suggest that clients not send any questions that may be sensitive or confidential via email

RULE: Please inform us if you wish to be contacted by email and how often you check and respond to your email.

RULE: We will never use email for urgent communication and we ask that you do not use email for any urgent communications. If you need to contact us or get important information to us immediately, you need to contact us by phone.

RULE: It is not the policy of the Yevics Law Firm to forward client emails outside of the firm. If we feel that we need to forward information you have sent us in an email, we will obtain permission.

PHONES: If you use your cell phone interchangeably as your office phone, then some of these rules may not apply. If you have a separate office phone number, then I think you should NOT put your cell phone on your card or give it out to all clients. If your cell phone is your office phone, then you might want to consider a separate personal phone.

RULE: Use of cell phones is now universal. We use our cell phones for business but do not give out our cell phones except for emergencies. We check our voice mail regularly and will make certain that our voice mail gives detailed information about our schedule on a daily basis.

When leaving a message, please let us know if we may call you at home after regular business hours. We will make every effort to have someone contact you at a time that is convenient for you. If your case or situation is such that you need to reach us in an emergency, we will provide you with an emergency number.

RULE: Your case or matter is very important to you and it is very important to our firm as well. There may be times when you have an emergency and need to contact us. If this applies to your case, we will give you our home/cell phone numbers. The following can be considered emergencies which would require you to call our home/cell phone.

EMERGENCIES: (This is where you will list those situations that you think a client should contact you at home or at your cell phone.)

SECURITY ISSUES: Another concern with 24-7 communication is security. The more information we send into cyberspace, the more we are coming to realize that much of it is not secure and confidential.

RULE: The Yevics Law Firm takes computer security very seriously. We use and update our virus protection software regularly. We do not use email to send confidential information. If we do find it necessary to send a document to you, we will send it in pdf format only.

I think technology is fantastic. I would not want to live without my cell phone, laptop or Treo. It has actually allowed me more freedom to do the activities I want while working hard for my clients, the solo and small firm practitioners of Maryland. However, I know where to draw the line and if you do a really good job for your clients, they respect that.

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About the Author

Patricia A. Yevics, Director of the Law Office Management Assistance, Maryland State Bar Association.

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