Solving the Communications Problem



Garry Wise: Last week, my co-scribe, Mr. David Bilinsky, posed a particularly simple, yet oh-so-important question:

What do you think that lawyers can do to make theirs – their client’s and their regulator’s – life a bit easier?

It all starts with communications.

And, when it comes to communications, I think I can actually answer David’s question – or begin to – in a short, but worthy SlawTip:

Once a practice has matured, no lawyer can do it alone. The solution to the communications conundrum is probably as simple as this – develop good communications systems for your firm and recruit excellent staff to implement those systems.

More specifically, with respect to written communications:

  • Get an iPhone, Blackberry, Android or Windows phone and use it!  Most email messages can be answered in less than 60 seconds – even while you have one eye on the hockey game. Or the news. Or your favourite reality show. Or a Supreme Court of Canada telecast.
  • I suggest that it should be every firm’s policy that clients must receive copies by email of all correspondence and documents sent and received on their matters.  Establish a policy that your assistant will immediately copy the client whenever a document is sent or received.
  • This should occur, even when you are out of the office, so that the client is always in the loop. Copying clients on matters should be viewed as an administrative function, to be primarily handled by assistants.  In this current email era, that means your assistants should have access to your inbox or be able download your email to their desktops.
  • Of course, every so often a document will arrive that you will want to review before the client receives it.  Train your staff members to exercise discretion in identifying those rare occasions when it is appropriate to delay copying a client with a document, pending your review.
  • If you will be out of the office and unable to respond to email correspondence, set up a friendly auto-respond message to explain when and why you will be unavailable.  Or ask that your assistant respond on your behalf with similar information and an offer to assist.
  • Being paperless facilitates better communications.  Once you have systems in place to scan all faxes, letters and documents related to every client matter, it’s not a major leap to instruct your assistants to ensure that clients receive copies by email of everything scanned as soon as it is scanned.

My thoughts on phone calls are similar:

  • If you can’t immediately take a call or return a call, your assistant can do so on your behalf.  At the very least, he or she can get details for you on the issue at hand, and perhaps even address it.
  • I am a big believer in scheduling phone calls with clients and other counsel for  specified times.   Since it is often a challenge to be available at exactly the time arranged, I suggest scheduling a call to occur within a 15 minute window, where possible – for example between 3 and 3:15 p.m.  Knowing a call is scheduled to occur at a specific time will focus your attention and allow for a file review or other preparation in advance.
  • Brief your clients if you are unlikely to be reachable on a random-call basis.  Help them to understand that you prefer to schedule calls, so that you can be sure to be available and fully informed when you do ultimately connect.
  • While I suspect voice-mail is becoming an ’80’s technology of waning use and utility, don’t ignore your messages. Your assistant should be assigned the task of checking your voice-mails and returning calls – several times each day.
  • If you are better at email than phone, and prefer to communicate that way, just let people know that.  Many will prefer to communicate that way too.
  • And finally, when you do speak by phone, do take good notes and confirm all discussions of substance by friendly email.
  • Trust me on this.  You are busy and you will forget important things if you don’t make good, contemporaneous notes.  The person on the other end of the line, however, will never forget a single word discussed.  That is just how life works.  Deal with it!

Clients who are in the loop are likely to be happy with their professional advisors.  Those who feel excluded from their own cases or files are much less likely to feel friendly.

So set up systems that prioritize communications, and train your staff and colleagues to implement them religiously.

Finally, a brief note on the client who insists on communicating by text message, tweet, LinkedIn post or Facebook video (yes – it’s happened to me).

Just say no.

But do it by email.

Let clients know you do not communicate using those technologies.  It is difficult enough keeping track of the usual modes of communication.  Make your life (and your regulator’s life) simple – make sure you have copies of all interactions.  And just don’t interact professionally on media where it is difficult to keep discrete, easily accessible records.

Over to you David.

David J. Bilinsky: Garry, I think you have hit it on the head. So much starts – and ends – with communications – or the lack thereof.

So many times I have called someone only to be met with a voice mail message that says: “Hi – you have reached Joe Bloggs – I am not available right now – please leave a message.”

Just what does that tell you?  Are they in the office today?  This week? This month?  When can I expect a return call *(if ever?)*.  How often do they check calls?  Joe Walsh in “Life’s Been Good” sings:

“So I got me an office, gold records on the wall.
Just leave a message, maybe I’ll call…”

Yet this seems to be the communication theme of lawyers.  If you are gone…say so!  If you are in the office and expected to return calls today…say so!  Let your callers in on the secret – just when can they expect a response from you?

Like you Garry I am a big believer in scheduling things..if you are not available until 230  pm to return calls …say that in your voice mail.  The caller will understand if you are busy until then.  Better yet – invite the caller to send you an email to end the ping-pong of voice mail messages and cut to the quick. What is it that they need from you?

If you make a promise – ie to return all calls by the end of the day..then do it! Even if it is just to leave a message on their voice mail that you returned their call within your promised time.  You build trust and reliance this way.  After all – isn’t this all about letting people know that they can trust you to do as you say?

Communication, as it has been said, is the problem to the answer.

Communicate well – as promised and responsively – and you will have gone a long way towards not only solving one of the biggest headaches of legal regulators – you will have gone a long way towards building a solid bond with your clients.  After all – if you follow through on the small promises (like returning phone calls) doesn’t that bode well for how you carry out the rest of your work?

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