Far too many attorneys have convinced themselves that they must tolerate their disjointed, interruption-laden approach to managing their time in the name of “good client service” (aka, “responsiveness”).
But like an optical illusion, what seems to be true about responsiveness often isn’t. Indeed, in our work coaching lawyers on time management, we repeatedly find that they can learn how to gain greater control over client interruptions without sacrificing in any way the quality of the relationships upon which they depend. Let’s unpack the assumptions that fuel the responsiveness illusion. Here’s the thought: If I don’t respond immediately, the client will: • Be angry • Think I’m not on top of his matter • Think she’s not important enough to me • Not send me additional work • Complain about my fees • Fire me
These assumptions, of course, are all born out of fear. And they don’t take into account context and expectations (i.e., the overall character of the relationship, and the implicit and explicit communication you’ve had on the subject of accountability.
A second source of the illusion is ego. It’s gratifying to have important clients need you. That’s normal and fine. The trick is to stop your ego from establishing unattainable performance standards that will wind up boxing you in.
It turns out that 95% of your clients are actually reasonable human beings with whom you can discuss your mutual needs and expectations about communication. After all, what clients report they want from their lawyers is integrity (that your words match your actions), high-quality legal thinking, and a trustworthy relationship. Yes, they’re also looking for effective and even aggressive advocacy, but it’s an extremely small percentage of their calls and emails that constitute actual emergencies. Look, if a client would fire you (or penalize you in some way) for getting back to them in three hours instead of within 15 minutes of their otherwise routine email or voicemail, then either you’ve established inappropriate/unrealistic standards, or they’re a problematic client and you should consider letting them become someone else’s headache.
Simply put, if you feel that all (or even most) of your clients have the right to demand that you sacrifice your autonomy throughout the day, you’re not in control of your practice. And when you’re not in control, paradoxically, you’re more likely to damage the very relationships you’re stressing out about. So one of the secrets of successful time management for attorneys is to shift your internal belief system about what “responsiveness” and “client service” really mean.
What should you do? First, recognize that you’re carrying around an illusion, a distortion of what’s true. Then, assess the relationship with your current clients, one by one, to determine with whom you need to have a conversation about reframing communication expectations. (Assuming you’re serving them well overall, you’ll be amazed at how reasonable they will be. And if you’re not serving them as well as you should be, get to work fixing the problems; you’ll then be able to reframe successfully).
Finally, become comfortable discussing communication expectations with ALL prospects and new clients at the start of the relationship. For some help with this, the best book on the topic of relationship building remains The Trusted Advisor, by Maister, Green and Galford.