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Drawing boundaries with clients

Tips for lawyers who wish to avoid taking calls and emails during off hours

By TONY OGDEN, Lawyers USA, the national sister paper of Lawyers Weekly

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While many lawyers pride themselves on client service, few enjoy losing their nights and weekends to client calls and emails.

“There are clients whose hands must be held on weekends as well as weekdays, and that’s understandable,” says Thomas Raftery, a solo practitioner in North Chatham, Mass. “But you have to draw the line somehow.”

Beverly Michaelis, a practice management adviser at Professional Liability Fund in Tigard, Ore., agreed.

“Every business has hours. Every business has availability. Lawyers aren’t any different,” Michaelis said.

Lawyers must balance their need for personal time with the importance of providing great client service, advises Erik Mazzone, director of the Center for Practice Management at the North Carolina Bar Association in Cary.

That said, “being a lawyer is a hard job and having the time to recharge your batteries allows you to be better at your job,” Mazzone says. “I’d go home and ask my spouse: ‘Do I need boundaries?'”

Here are a few tips for lawyers who wish to avoid taking calls and emails during off hours:

•Manage expectations. “What it really comes down to is managing expectations, setting down in the beginning what clients can expect from you and then meeting or exceeding those expectations,” Mazzone says. “You could easily tell someone you don’t answer emails at night [as long as they know] you always answer all emails within 24 hours.”

Michaelis recommends that lawyers inform clients of their policies during the initial client intake in both written and verbal form.

“I don’t think anyone expects for their lawyer to be available 24/7, but it needs to be expressed,” Michaelis says.

• Communicate about policy changes. Mazzone strongly suggests sitting down with clients to discuss communication policy changes before they take effect.

“Some will be fine with it; others may want a new lawyer. Either way, at least you’ll know where you are,” he says.

Grandfathering in existing clients and applying any new policy going forward would be an easy way to make changes, Mazzone notes.

Increasing the cost of off-hours work could also help because it incentivizes clients to call you during regular hours while at the same time giving them the option to speak to you at other times, as long as your method complies with ethics rules, he adds.

• Create call-return hours. Michaelis suggests selecting hours of each day to return calls, rather than always taking them when they come in.

“The way I’d phrase it is, ‘I return calls.’ The client can always leave messages, and [he or she] will be assured that you’ll call back during certain times,” she says. “If I were a client, I would love to hear that my lawyer was taking time specifically to return calls. The lawyer will make the best use of their time if they can work uninterrupted.”

• Respond to emergencies. It’s fine to allow for emergency calls, Michaelis says, because most people will follow the rules.

“The majority of people will go with the flow. You need to tell them that what that flow is,” she says.

“Think of yourself as a service provider. How would you feel if your doctor didn’t allow calls at night?” Mazzone asks.

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