I had no idea how many law firms answered their phones with “Hello L’office” until I went to work for the OBA. But it’s not limited to Oklahoma. I have received the same greeting calling lawyers’ offices in many states. Obviously, the intended greeting is “Hello Law Office,” but when you are busy and do a task hundreds of times, the unintended contraction of the phrase is understandable, if not acceptable. This month we will discuss the importance of law firm receptionist duties.

The receptionist is a very important position for the firm. Often, these duties are relegated to the least experienced and lowest-paid staff member. In some smaller law firms, the secretaries rotate who answers the phone during the day. Answering the phone is likely not their favorite time of the day, as their other work is slowed. But if we were to properly title this position based on importance to law office operations, we might use titles like “vice president of potential clients’ first impressions” or “first responder for client emergencies.”

Every law firm should have written instructions on how the phones should be answered. Every time the phone rings, it could be a potential new client, and what will their first impression be? Many smaller firms have experimented with automated answering trees, “Press 1 for …,” but others believe that is far too impersonal, and many small firm practice areas, like family law, are quite personal. Everyone answering the law firm phone lines should use a warm and friendly tone when answering the phone. It is very important to smile. Even though the smile cannot be seen over voice-only communication, it impacts one’s vocal tone. Incoming calls should be answered within three rings or less. This involves both training and teamwork to avoid placing someone on hold to answer another line.

Yes, what members of your team say when they answer the phone should be scripted. “Smith and Jones law firm. This is Mary speaking. How may we help you?” is one good example. Many prefer to use “law office” because several lawyers may be sharing office space, phone lines and a receptionist without being in a partnership. I would concur with your professional liability insurance carrier that answering the telephone Smith, Jones and Moore, when there is no law firm but three solo practitioners sharing overhead, could be used as evidence of a partnership, giving rise to joint and several liability for a client with professional negligence claims.

While I concur, I also think “law office” is an uninspiring way to answer the phone; however, the primary problem is weak branding. A client may call the law firm often during the representation. Hearing the firm name repeated increases the chance the client will more easily remember the lawyer if a new legal matter arises years after the representation. So, if some lawyers operating independently have a long-term office sharing agreement, maybe they can try something creative like naming their office building and answering the phone “Main Street Law Center” (I should note, signage referring to the different entities at a location and having every client sign an attorney-client agreement indicating the client is contracting with the named attorney who is not a member of a law partnership are probably stronger evidence items to contest a “partnership by estoppel” claim). If you need to continue answering the phone “law office,” at least make sure everyone answering the phone reads this column’s headline. Focus can help assure the pause between the words.

The real point about “Hello L’office” is to recognize law offices are busy places, and everyone is working quickly to get their work done. You want no one, including the lawyers, to sound rushed when talking with clients or potential clients on the phone. Speak clearly and slowly. The caller cannot see your facial expressions and may draw negative conclusions from a “normal,” fast-paced law office tone. Let me repeat. Smile! It does make a difference.

I believe lawyers should record their own personal voicemail messages. The phone has been answered by reception and transferred to you. It is better for the caller to hear your voice, so it is clear they have reached you. If their cellphone connection is unstable, it is even more important. I appreciate some people hate hearing recordings of their voice, but hopefully, you won’t be listening to it very often.

Assist the receptionist by making certain they know the names of many of your clients and are also alerted when certain new clients have some urgency that may have them calling you frequently. Train the staff to use the client’s name while talking to them on the phone. It personalizes the encounter. This is especially important when disengaging: “Mr. Green, is there anything else I can do for you today?” Some clients will tell your staff to call them by their first name, which I see as another building block in the new relationship.

A PROFESSIONAL ANSWERING SERVICE MAY BE A GREAT INVESTMENT

Many small law firms and solo practitioners now use professional answering services. These can be a great investment if the service frees up your staff for other duties. Most of these services can be scaled to use as much as you need them. Want to close the office every day for lunch? Forward the phones to the service for that time period. Maybe you have a practice that often receives calls in the early evening. The service can help with that.

You may also realize a return on that investment if you provide the service with several dates and times they can schedule a new client appointment for you and what types of matters are appropriate for them to schedule. I recall from private practice being in court all morning and returning calls from potential new clients in the afternoon, only to learn many had already hired a lawyer or at least said they had. “The lawyer is out of the office right now, but I can schedule an appointment for you this week,” is something you want to offer.

Even if you don’t hire an answering service, your staff should have the same instructions. If you are in court Monday morning and someone calls seeking to talk to a lawyer “right now,” your staff should schedule an appointment for that afternoon. Of course, the lawyer will want to review any appointment scheduled this way to screen out obvious conflicts and cancel the appointment if need be.

Ruby (formerly Ruby Receptionists) is an OBA member benefit. You can call 866-611-7829 or visit www.ruby.com/  for more information. OBA members receive a lifetime 6% discount, backed by a 21-day money-back guarantee. Smith AI was a sponsor at our 2019 Solo and Small Firm Conference.

WHAT IS YOUR MARKETING GOAL? PHONE CALLS OR CLIENTS?

Many adults, particularly younger adults, hate talking on the phone when they believe it is avoidable. It is more than a casual belief. It is not that they don’t want to talk to people in your office. But when all they want is to schedule an appointment, why have a conversational dialog of possible times and dates when there are more convenient ways to do that, particularly outside of business hours. Yet, the focus of most lawyer marketing, the “call to action,” is to telephone the law firm to talk to someone, as I have noted in this space before. Website instructions on how to text the firm and online appointment scheduling are not services to consider for the future – they are tools you need today!

ARE YOUR CONVERSATIONS PRIVATE?

Lawyers spend a lot of time talking on the phone – in the office, the car and everywhere else. I cannot think of a busy law practice that doesn’t involve a lot of telephone conversations. But when something is so routine and familiar, it is easy to make mistakes and fail to examine how to improve the process. It is easy to get involved in an important legal discussion on your mobile phone in public and forget others can hear you. If you must take a client phone call in public, move away from others to protect confidentiality.

Some law offices have their waiting area positioned where people can hear some of the staff’s phone conversations. It makes sense as someone is needed to greet those who come in the door and inform the lawyers their appointment has arrived. But sooner or later, without careful training, someone in the waiting room will overhear something they shouldn’t. If your practice is in a smaller community, it will be sooner.

Maybe some Plexiglas sheets can be installed to deaden the sound, or other measures can be taken. It is certainly something to think about when designing a new office floorplan. Perhaps your waiting area needs some background music, or consider removing lobby chairs within earshot of the reception area.

CONCLUSION

It can be easy to hire someone to answer the phones and not fully train them because you are facing many deadlines. But a poorly trained receptionist can create problems for the law firm in many ways. A well-trained receptionist, however, may engage your client with a positive attitude and perhaps bring in some new clients with offers to assist callers, including scheduling appointments.

Consider using this article and your experience with how your law firm operates to build a simple and short set of instructions for the receptionist position. That way, when any future problem is identified or someone wants to improve the process, you have a written set of instructions to modify. In addition, these instructions will prove invaluable if, due to unexpected absences, you find yourself staffing the receptionist position with a temporary worker. Your vice president of potential clients’ first impressions deserves nothing less.

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal — November, 2021 — Vol. 92, No. 9

Sharon Nelson and I usually are acquainted with most of our podcast guests. But Dru Armstrong has been the CEO of LawPay.for just over 90 days and it was a pleasure to meet her while we interviewed her for our podcast: A Conversation with LawPay’s CEO – and Introducing ClientCredit. She was fun, engaging and it clearly wasn’t her first rodeo as far being interviewed.

As most lawyers reading this are probably aware, LawPay has been providing payment processing services to the legal profession for a long time and they have many offerings related to lawyers getting paid. Even non-subscribers can get some great forms from LawPay’s Resources Center.

Dru Armstrong covered a lot of subjects, but she was most excited about introducing ClientCredit. Clients who are unable to pay a retainer or a larger bill, will have a quick option to finance the payment, allowing the client to stretch out their payments over time while the lawyers receive their fees now. Certainly after the last year and a half, most lawyers are convinced of the benefits allowing clients to make electronic payments. Listen to Dru discussing this new “buy now, pay later” options and many other aspects of managing digital financial transactions.

With Halloween just ahead, Attorney at Work shared a post today on Lawyer Tech Tips: Things That Go Bump in Legal Tech. Contributors included Jim Calloway, Anne Haag, Tom Lambotte, Catherine Sanders Reach, Sharon Nelson and John Simek, and Ben Schorr.

You will find some good advice wrapped around a few spooky stories. But there are lots of great tips for the legal profession, particularly the attorney working from home, either full time or part-time

How lawyers handle their billing has long been a topic of discussion in our field. Traditionally, it was a simple process. Record your time. Prepare invoices by listing all these billing entries multiplied by the lawyers’ hourly billing rates and adding expenses clients should pay. Send out the billing on the same day every month. Get paid. But it was often not simple and smooth – and it still isn’t today. Recording a lawyer’s time by the six-minute increments is not the way legal billing has always been done.

Most readers know of the challenges found between recording time and final billing. A new associate demonstrates their expertise by doing too much research and writing a lengthy, detailed memo, generating billing that needs to be written down. The partner did a lot of work on a project, but generated few billing records because things were so busy. One partner is out of state and failed to turn in a week’s worth of billing before leaving. And the pre-bills can get stuck in the review process because both emergencies and procrastination can happen. 

BILLING HAS NOT ALWAYS BEEN RATE TIMES THE HOURS

Read the rest of my October 2021 Law Practices Tips column in the Oklahoma Bar Journal.

Discussing technology competence among lawyers is always an interesting conversation. When we were discussing adopting the technology competence amendment to the Oklahoma Rules of Professional Conduct, one lawyer indicated that he didn’t want to learn how to use Twitter and shouldn’t be forced to by a rule or comment. My unspoken reaction was “You don’t have to learn about Twitter, unless Twitter is involved in one of the matters you are handling and then you may be ethically required to learn about it.” (Which is why almost every family law practitioner now knows how to save Facebook and other social media posts to be used at trial.)

Of course there are some technology skills you are required to have to practice law today, such as making certain client confidences are not placed at risk by improper use of technology tools.

My contribution to the discussion this month is Technology Competence for Every Lawyer. It is not comprehensive, as that would take many more pages and would likely differ based on a lawyer’s type of practice. But I’d like to think it is a good starting place for “every lawyer” who might want to learn more about technology competence. According to Bob Ambrogi’s LawSites blog, 39 states have now adopted some version of the ethics rule requiring technology competence.

Some of the greatest decisions of your career may be ones that you don’t even remember. They involve clients who you decided not to represent that went on to make another lawyer’s life miserable for a while. Client selection is an important aspect of law firm management. For many lawyers, this involves a one-to-one consultation with prospective clients.

My column in the Oklahoma Bar Journal Client Selection: How to Red Flag High-Risk Clients (Including Relatives) covers some types of potential clients that most likely aren’t going to be great clients.

I also discuss the idea that lawyers shouldn’t represent their relatives. For some lawyers, that is “black letter law,” never to be done. Others think that approach is overly cautious. My personal opinion is you should never represent family members in contested family law matters. You don’t want to be one of the cast of characters in the recounting of “How I got ripped off in my divorce” that happens at family gatherings. On the other hand, if you know there’s a huge search and seizure issue with your nephew’s arrest and know exactly how to respond, are you really going to tell him and his family to find a lawyer on their own?

We recently did a Digital Edge podcast Overcoming Trust Account Management Challenges.

Our guest was Paul Garibian, a fintech expert, entrepreneur, and current CEO of Nota. Nota provides financial services to lawyers including trust accounts with no services charges. We discussed common mistakes lawyers make with their trust accounts, the serious consequences of mismanaging these accounts, and the best practices lawyers need to know. There is a transcript of the podcast also available at the link for those who would rather read than listen. The basics of proper trust account management are not that onerous (I know others may disagree) as long as you do record keeping timely. A small amount of time each week keeps a lawyer out of trust account trouble.

Both Julie Bays and I of the OBA Management Assistance Program are available to discuss trust account questions with Oklahoma Bar Association members.

Lawyers often deal with the challenges that occur when people die without making a last will and testament. One result is sometimes intestacy laws distribute property differently than the deceased might have wanted. Additional expenses and legal fees are almost always a result.

Similar challenges and expenses can occur when a lawyer dies or becomes disabled without leaving instructions as to how matters should be handled in their absence, whether permanent or temporary. The burden of deciding what to do then falls on the spouse or other heirs, even though sometimes local lawyers may pitch in to help. But even if another lawyer agrees to help wind up a practice, do your heirs understand the client files must be first reviewed as that lawyer may be opposing counsel or have other conflicts related to some of the files? Those files should not be given to the assisting lawyer and another lawyer will have to help with those, even if only transferring them to your former clients.

While the following resource is only available to Oklahoma Bar Association members, many state bar associations provide similar resources. Contact your state bar’s practice management advisor or other bar association staff to see if a similar resource is available in your jurisdiction

Planning Ahead Guide: Attorney Transition Planning in The Event of Death or Incapacity is a guide the OBA provides to Oklahoma Bar Association members. It is detailed and comprehensive, containing forms to use in planning and execution. The Planning Guide is available for free download. Log into My OKBar and select Attorney Transition Planning Guide from the list of links at the right. Your heirs may not know who an appropriate lawyer would be to be the Assisting Attorney to aid them. It will go much smoother if you have secured the Assisting Attorney’s agreement to help them in advance. Even if you haven’t finished everything the Planning Guide suggests, just accomplishing those steps will provide your heirs much peace of mind and help them get started.

And if you are a lawyer who keeps the originals of clients’ wills and estate plans, you will definitely want to review the section beginning on page 69 “Why Did We Ever Want to Keep Original Wills?”

Email is a part of our lives, like it or not. It is great when you need to deliver documents to another state without paying for a courier. But between all the spam, the phishing attempts to attack your computers and an appreciation that most emails contain a request for you to do something when you are already busy, email can be a source of daily frustration.

40 One-Sentence Email Tips is a quick read with some great tips, particularly the first two. And allow me to confer VIP status on number 8: “A good email with a bad subject line isn’t a good email.” This article is rated PG-13 for mild language.

There are a few of these that I question, especially for our profession, like the one suggesting if you want a question answered, end with the question. Given how busy people are and how often we get interrupted, I’d suggest opening and closing with your most important question.

One of the best tips the author shared was to unsubscribe from electronic mailing lists that you never (or rarely) read. If you just can’t bring yourself to do that, consider creating a folder for those emails and creating a rule where all messages are routed into the folder. At least they won’t clutter your inbox and when you do decide to delete them, they are all in a handy folder.

Way back when I practiced law, few one- and two- lawyer offices prepared a budget in advance for the year. Their budget, and in many cases their “partnership” distribution formula, was the tried-and-true formula “you eat what you kill.” Had we questioned the lawyers about that omission, many would have responded that budgets weren’t important because that wasn’t real money. Revenue received was real money and they generally understood their monthly overhead requirements. Yet these same lawyers would have advised their business clients that running their business without a budget was a terrible idea.

Why should a solo or small firm prepare a budget? appears in the annual finance issue of Law Practice Magazine. It is written by OBA Practice Management Advisor Julie Bays and me. This is such an important subject, especially for lawyers starting a new small law firm. The article covers the basics and is targeted toward lawyers with little background in accounting.

A budget is a plan. Sometimes things don’t go according to your plan as we all learned in 2020. But attempting to reach one of your primary business goals, financial security, deserves advance planning and this feature should help small firm lawyers who have never prepared a law firm budget head in the right direction.