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.
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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.
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