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Legal Cents: Get over your phone hang ups

Jane Pribek is a former family law attorney and regular Wisconsin Law Journal contributor. She can be reached at [email protected]

A few years ago, I was living every reporter’s nightmare. Every call I made went to people’s voicemails.

Then I called Milwaukee lawyer Tom Shriner, who picked up. I was completely shocked. I don’t remember what I was calling about. But I do remember how grateful I was to actually speak to a human being who, as a bonus, was pleasant and knowledgeable.

So when I was tapped to write an article about proper phone protocol, naturally I gave Shriner, of Foley & Lardner LLP, a call.

My call went to voicemail. But his message gave the correct date, said he was out of the office and that he’d do his very best to get back to callers tomorrow. Sure enough, he called me back the very next day.

In my opinion, people remember excellent or awful manners, and little in between. As professionals, we certainly want to be known for falling into the first category, and like it or not, the phone remains an essential communication tool.

Maybe in 20 years, the phone will be a relic. After all, Madison lawyer Kevin Palmersheim of Haley Palmersheim SC, Middleton, pointed out that millennials and younger love their phones, but not to actually talk to people.

Along these lines, Shriner said he knows lawyers who’ve managed to dodge the phone entirely, screening calls and then communicating with callers via email or by having an assistant relay messages. He’s not really sure why they’re in a profession that by its very nature entails direct communication and relationships.

But many firms these days offer direct dials, said law firm administrator Jennifer Lindskoog of Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek SC, Milwaukee, which don’t allow attorneys to completely delegate the phone to staff members.

And why would they want to, anyway? How an attorney uses the phone communicates a great deal about them, perhaps more than what’s actually said.

Superior lawyer Johanna Kirk said there’s much to be gleaned from tone, inflection and the pace of the conversation.

Simply put, courtesy and responsiveness on the phone really do matter. So, pick up!

Like Shriner, Palmersheim said he tries to answer calls as they come in, rather than letting them go to voicemail. When he’s on a deadline, obviously that can’t happen.

But he’s noticed that over the years the number of calls he receives has declined because email has taken over. So when someone calls, typically it’s fairly urgent and warrants his attention. Picking up ends phone tag, he said.

At Lindskoog’s firm, she said, they emphasize being “pleasant and forthcoming with information,” and the goal is a callback within one hour, whether it’s from staff or an attorney.

An hour is a laudable timeframe, but it’s just not do-able for Kirk, a solo practitioner with no staff members. She said she aims to return calls within 24 hours, but often does so much sooner.

Shriner said he changes his voicemail daily to keep people informed. Kirk keeps her greeting generic, but checks messages often and returns the calls ASAP.

Behavior to avoid

There are plenty of lawyers, Palmersheim said, engaging in practices to avoid. Such as a lawyer who intentionally returns calls after hours, to avoid having to actually speak with him.

Equally irritating, he said, is the lawyer whose gatekeeper gives Palmersheim the third-degree about the call’s purpose, then puts him on a lengthy hold, only to have the attorney eventually pick up and pretend to have no idea why he’s calling.

But tops on Palmersheim’s list of obnoxious phone behaviors is the lawyer whose written communications are polite, but over the phone he or she is overly aggressive because there’s no record of it to put in front of a judge.

Kirk said she dislikes callers who leave numbers she can’t decipher. She always says her number very slowly and repeats it. She also spells her name. Sure, it makes the message longer. But replaying messages that are barely audible, over and over, is time-consuming, too.

The opposite, but equally annoying, according to Shriner, is the lawyer who leaves the three-second message: “It’s so-and-so. Call me.” He has no idea why or how long the callback will take.

Tips to try

Lindskoog said she likes to take note of a caller’s name and then refer to him or her by it during the conversation (typically no first names).

Other tips include:

  • Tell callers to whom they’re being transferred, and give a number just in case they get cut off.
  • Warn them before putting them on hold.
  • Tell them to “Enjoy the rest of your day,” at the end of the conversation, when appropriate. Lindskoog and I agreed that “Have a nice day” is beginning to sound too cliché.

Some workplaces offer written telephone etiquette guidelines for employees. For example, at a former job, the handbook told us to smile while talking to callers because that smile comes across in your tone.

Lindskoog said she’s heard that smile suggestion, too, and though it’s probably true, it’s also not always easy to do. So, we agreed: God bless anyone capable of the telephone permagrin.

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