Imagine this: you walk into your office after a week out, only to see a stack of angry phone messages, an overwhelming amount of e-mails from distressed clients, and a frazzled staff. Some of your clients are threatening to fire you. Any lingering feeling of relaxation from your time out of the office instantly evaporates and you spend the rest of the day desperately trying to catch up.
Sounds like a nightmare, right? It happens every day, as many attorneys do not establish a clear, comprehensive “out of office” game plan for their staff and clients alike. Here are three best out-of-office practices to ensure this scenario does not play out at your firm. After all, effective client communication is a foundation upon which a law practice can either thrive or crumble.
1. Manage Your Clients’ Expectations
The best time to have a conversation with your client about your out-of-office communication practices is not when you are packing your bags for Bermuda. This conversation should take place at the start of your attorney-client relationship. It may feel counterintuitive to discuss your occasional unavailability at the beginning of your involvement in the client’s case, but you have to be realistic with your client and yourself. Whether it’s court appearances, family emergencies or events, or the occasional time off, you will not be available 24/7, so it is important that you and your client are on the same page about the level of communication expected during these times. By having this conversation early, you can avoid any potential problems down the road.
When you are going to be out of the office for a planned period, do not surprise your clients with this information the day before you leave. Important information to convey to your client includes:
- The exact days you will be out of the office
- Who they should contact in case of an emergency
- The alternative person’s contact information
Your goal is to reassure your clients that they are valued and that their case will not languish in your absence.
2. Prepare your Staff
Your practice should not grind to a halt the moment you leave. A well-prepared staff can be instrumental in keeping your practice running smoothly when you are out of office.
- When you know the dates you will be out of the office, the next people to notify are your staff members
- Enter your travel dates into a shared calendar system so no appointments or court dates are scheduled for you while you are out
- Consider scheduling a “breather” day after you return to allow you to catch up with your staff regarding calls, e-mails, and documents that came in while you were out
- Your staff should know how to reach you in an emergency, and let them know when you plan on checking your messages
- Depending on your staff members’ experience level, it could be helpful to give them a “script” containing what they should say to clients and opposing attorneys regarding you being out of the office
- Before you leave, ensure your staff feels comfortable with what to say to others about you being out and the procedure to follow for various situations that could arise. If your staff sounds panicked or unsure when speaking with a client, that may give the client a negative impression of you and your firm
3. Leverage Technology to Easily Communicate with Clients
An attorney who wants to grow his or her practice knows that it is important to have a competitive advantage over other attorneys. This is especially important in the age of Avvo and Yelp, where clients can easily leave negative or positive feedback about their experience with an attorney.
Attorneys can easily utilize existing technology to meet and excel beyond their client communication obligations. Consider the following ways to use technology to your advantage:
- Your smartphone is a powerful mini-computer that can be used for more than internet browsing, playing games, or telling your partner when you are coming home for dinner. You can sync your e-mail provider and calendar with your phone and set up alerts so you never miss an important e-mail or deadline.
- Set up an out of office auto-reply for your e-mail account that provides useful information to the recipient, including the dates you are out of the office and who can be contacted while you are out.
- Create an e-mail signature for messages that you send from your smartphone. Don’t forget to include any language you typically use regarding confidential communications and formation of the attorney-client relationship.
- You can communicate with your staff or clients via text message regarding important issues if you are unable to take a call. Beware of giving “off-the-cuff” response to clients though—legal advice holds equal weight whether it is given through an in-person meeting or a text message.
- There are many Case Management Software (“CMS”) programs for attorneys and small law firms. A great CMS, such as Smokeball, will help you store all e-mails, documents, and essential information for your cases in one place. If you want to work when you are out of the office, your CMS should also be accessible from your mobile phone, tablet, or laptop computer, regardless of your location.
Establishing and maintaining excellent communication practices with clients both meets your professional obligation and builds your practice. Preparing for periods when you are out of the office benefits you, your staff, and your clients. Consider implementing some of the practices described above to improve your practice. If you would like to share any helpful tips on how to better communicate with clients when you are out of the office, please feel free to post them below in the comments section.