Is Client Responsiveness A Good Measure Of A Lawyer’s Quality?

Over at the [non]billable hour, Matthew Homann posted a hilarious Venn Diagram for "What Lawyers Put In Their Biographies" vs. "What Clients Look For In Lawyer Biographies."

The diagram is so true it hurts to look at it. The first line in What Clients Look For — "will you return my calls?" — touches on an issue I have been thinking about again lately. Sometimes, I worry about the exaggerated importance placed on a lawyer’s "responsiveness" to client contact.

I’ve written about client contact before. Maybe I’m so troubled by the issue because I represent most of my clients on a contingent fee; my job isn’t to make them think that I’m a good lawyer (and thus justify paying me by the hour), my job is to win cases, and that takes precedence over everything else.

Don’t get me wrong: a lawyer not only should keep their client informed about the status of their case, but in fact is ethically required to do so, and should get consent before making major decisions relating to the case. Similarly, if a client has an emergency, that’s a different story entirely.

My worry doesn’t relate to whether or not clients should be upset or concerned if they are kept totally in the dark — of course they should be upset and concerned — but rather relates to the amount of "responsiveness" that a client should expect of an attorney, and the extent to which "responsiveness" should be a factor in assessing the work performed by an attorney.

Two issues come to mind.

First, the speed at which a lawyer returns a call is no indication of that lawyer’s quality. There are plenty of lawyers who, over the years, have developed a knack for smooth-talking clients into choosing courses of action that create the least amount of work for the lawyer while still creating the appearance of work and thus justifying the fee. The criminal defense lawyers who do little more than chat with the prosecutor to get a slightly better plea bargain offer; the plaintiffs’ lawyers who never think twice about trial and rarely spend the time and money for thorough discovery and credible experts; the business attorneys who recommend a few pointless changes and spit out some legalese to the client over the phone. Many of these lawyers have learned to be available for clients 24/7, notwithstanding their poor work, and are quick-witted enough to have a soothing answer for every problem that arises during a case, right up until they tell the client that the jig is up and there’s no hope but to accept a bad plea bargain, or a crummy nuisance-value settlement, or a contract that bears no resemblance to the transaction.

Second, I know it’s blasphemy for me to say it, but client contact comes second. Not first. Second. First comes competent representation: meeting deadlines, developing the case, and facing problems in the case head-on by devoting all of your time, energy and attention to the problem until it is resolved or avoided. That type of dedication to each case necessarily impacts your ability to respond to all the other clients whose cases just aren’t as urgent at the moment.

Is that ideal? Of course not. Ideally, a lawyer can juggle all of these balls at the same time, but let’s be honest: few lawyers can really devote themselves to their work while simultaneously guaranteeing every client that they’ll get a call back within 24, 48, or even 72 hours of a non-urgent call. Only two types of lawyers can do that: the types with few clients, and the types who are good only at sweet-talking clients.

But at least it’s fair: I can say with a straight face that, for all of my clients, for every time when I did not respond to a client’s non-urgent phone call or e-mail because I was focusing on a more urgent matter, there is a corresponding time when I was focusing on their case and not responding to someone else’s non-urgent call.

Do I wish I could do better? Absolutely. Any lawyer who isn’t always trying to do better shouldn’t be practicing. But there are only so many hours in the day, and I have no intention of cutting back on my representation so that I can get better at my marketing.

  • Good post, but you fail to point out an alternative. I tell prospective clients about this issue, and introduce them to the paralegal in the case. I tell them that the paralegal will always know the status of the case and can answer 99% of their questions. I tell them they are free to call me, but they will find that I am not not always able to return calls in 24-hours and thus they may choose to call the paralegal rather than me. I never get any push-back from this and from day one the clients call the paralegal on all routine matters.
    To be sure, responding to calls impacts a paralegal’s productivity, but we are willing to accept that decline in productivity in exchange for increased responsiveness to client inquiries.