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Communication balancing act: A method to the message madness

By: JESSICA STEPHEN//May 21, 2015//

Communication balancing act: A method to the message madness

By: JESSICA STEPHEN//May 21, 2015//

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There’s no one-size-fits-all means of dealing with the voicemails and emails — and now even text messages — that bombard lawyers nearly every day.

But there are a variety of ways to manage the madness.

“In my experience, what works is having a set policy in mind of how you’re going to work with people when it gets difficult,” said Amy Koltz, an attorney and adjunct professor at Marquette University Law School.

It’s a soft skill Koltz discusses with her students, who are often unprepared for the demands of digital communication. Even lawyers with years of experience can find themselves struggling.

“Communicating with clients is certainly the core of what attorneys do; without communication there isn’t work,” Koltz said. “So, have a plan for how you want to handle it. Be proactive as opposed to reactive, and figure out what’s reasonable for you.”

For Michelle Fitzgerald, that means no texts, no email after hours and, when a client can’t seem to comply, a reminder to try her at the office in the morning.

“I return calls on my cellphone all the time, so you might think, ‘How do you avoid calls on your cell? How do you avoid texts?’ But, if you get my voicemail, I say, ‘Call the office,’” said Fitzgerald, who is a family-law attorney and the owner of Horizons Law Group, as well as a teacher as Marquette.

“If a text comes in, I just toss my phone down and, maybe in the morning, if they haven’t heard from me yet and they email or call, I write back and say, ‘I did see that you texted me, but I don’t respond during family time. You’ll have to call the office in the morning.’ And it never happens again.”

The main points are consistency and managing clients’ expectations before they become troublesome, said Frank Pasternak, a personal injury attorney and an owner of Pasternak & Zirgibel.

“I try to keep client expectations in check by saying, ‘You can expect me to get back to you within 24 hours, unless you tell me something is absolutely urgent, whether it’s an email or a phone call.”

As a result, Pasternak said, clients seldom call his cellphone.

“They all have my mobile number. They just don’t do that to me because I tell them when they can expect to hear from us.”

Pasternak also is careful to never return client calls on his cellphone.

And, with email, he said, “I err on the side of keeping it simple: two, three sentences. And, if it can’t be kept simple, then just pick up the phone. I also I have the three email rule: If it takes more than three emails to finalize things, I like to pick up the phone.”

When it comes to managing the sheer volume of email he receives, Pasternak said he places limits on the time he’ll let himself spend in his inbox.

It’s not quite the schedule approach, which calls for setting aside specific times for emails to avoid reading them as they arrive. But he has set his phone to stop pushing notifications, which had been alerting him every time a new email would come in. And, in the office, he tries to visit his inbox only three or four times a day, usually when he’s returning from an appointment.

Fitzgerald doesn’t check email on a schedule either, although she said, “It may be a good idea, because it does sometimes seem to derail you.”

Instead, she checks throughout the day, forwarding more procedural messages to her assistant and marking as unread any messages she intends to answer personally later.

“I receive probably 100 emails a day, so that really helps,” Fitzgerald said. “Some might be easy to delete, like a bar (association) update. But at least a third need responses, so that filter really helps.”

In fact, Fitzgerald encourages clients to reach her using email.

“On my voicemail, my message says, essentially, ‘You’ve reached Michelle, but you may also email me,’ and I leave my email. I’m definitely steering it more toward the email, but at least I’m self-filtering and it has helped reduce the messages on voicemail.”

The strategy also gives Fitzgerald more control over how and when she responds. Instead of feeling obliged to return calls before she leaves the office, Fitzgerald can answer using email, which she often does from the comfort of her couch.

“And, even if I’m going to prepare an email response at night, I’ll save it and have it sent after 8 a.m. the next morning,” she said. “Otherwise, clients look at the time stamp and start to think you’re available 24-7.”

Text messages are also harder to preserve.

“You want an organized client file. How do you have that with text?” Fitzgerald asked. “With an email, that can be printed or saved in their folder. I can’t do that with text, and I’m not going to save it or screen shot it, forward it to myself and save it on the computer or print it out.”

That is exactly the method Pasternak uses and, he said, is what he finds to be most difficult about digital communications.

“I’ve probably had two clients in the last couple of years who were really texters, so I have gone along with it. But the hardest things for me to manage with clients is texts.”

Not only is it laborious, it also undermines attempts at controlling communication with clients.

“People seem to want an immediate response,” Pasternak said. “And there are plenty of times when you just cannot text people back, whether you’re in trial or you’re driving.”

Or sometimes he just don’t feel like answering a text, which is part of the reason Pasternak has set his phone to cease sending out notices to his correspondents every time he checks a message.

Fortunately, Pasternak has persuaded most of his clients to use email. Those who do resort to texting have at least shown restraint.

But, he said, he understands the temptation to charge for answering texts – a method some lawyers have embraced to avoid over-communication.

“It’s all about context,” offered Koltz, who said her husband, also an attorney, charges a 15-minute rate for texts. “… This is a service industry. Communication is essential. The trick is being accessible and responsive while being efficient. It’s a balancing act. If you feel like you’re overwhelmed, take a step back.”


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