Nothing is more frustrating for a client than when his lawyer won’t return his phone calls. Having been guilty of this offense myself on occasion, let me offer some insight into why attorneys do not return calls and advice on how to get your call returned.
Why Lawyers Don’t Return Clients’ Phone Calls
The personal injury lawyer’s most valuable asset is his time. This time is divided between tasks that move his cases forward toward resolution (and payment) and those that do not. Guess which category “client phone calls” fall in, more often than not? Unless you are calling your lawyer to give him some crucial piece of information, odds are good that your phone call is doing nothing to advance your case. Most clients call with questions about their case’s status or concerns over how their case is developing. While these calls are important to clients, they are important to lawyers only to the extent that lawyers don’t want pissed off clients. Client phone calls take the lawyer away from doing things that make him money. This is why they often end up on the “back burner.”
There is no doubt that lawyers have an ethical duty to keep clients informed about the status of their cases. However, this rule doesn’t necessarily mean that your lawyer needs to convey this information personally, or even over the phone. More often than not, a paralegal assigned to your case can answer your “case status” questions. Some lawyers send out once-a-month “status” letters to their clients to cover this ethical obligation. Anything beyond this is usually considered “hand holding,” a practice which lawyers find annoying at best.
Most personal injury lawyers will tell you when you first hire them that there will be long periods of time during your case when they are simply gathering information and waiting until your case is ready for settlement or trial. When something significant approaches, such as a deposition, an IME, or a mediation, they will call you. In your lawyer’s mind, if he hasn’t called you, there is usually nothing he needs to talk to you about. A call from you will trigger the following internal dialogue in your attorney’s head: “Why is this person calling me? I told him I’d call when I had any news. He’s probably calling just to be a squeaky wheel and bitch about how his case isn’t moving fast enough, or maybe to gripe about how he doesn’t have any money — as if I don’t want his case to settle as soon as possible.” This instinctive response to client calls comes from experience. Your call may not be like that at all, but your lawyer doesn’t know that. Would you rush to return a call from someone who just wants to complain about how he thinks you’re not working fast enough?
How You Get Your Lawyer to Return Your Calls
Now that you know why lawyers don’t return client calls in general, how can you get your lawyer to return your call? First and foremost, don’t call your lawyer all the time. The story of the “Little Boy Who Cried Wolf” should be your guide here. Only call when it is important, and only ask to speak directly to your lawyer when you have to. If his paralegal can answer your question, let her. It is fine to call your lawyer’s office and specifically ask for the paralegal to get your regular status updates (and when I say regular, I mean “once a month,” not “once a week”).
Secondly, I can not stress enough how important it is for you not to be rude or abrasive when calling your lawyer’s office. I don’t care what your lawyer did or how pissed off you are. The goal here is to get a return phone call. If you vent your spleen on the paralegal, you significantly reduce the odds that your call will be returned. Worse, your return phone call could be to tell you that your lawyer is dropping your case because you’re a jerk (yes, they can do that). Try to think like your lawyer. Who would you call back first: the friendly client who’s always pleasant and doesn’t keep you on the phone forever or the angry client who wants you to call him so he can bitch you out for an hour? Bottom line: nice clients tend to move to the front of the line for return calls. Jerks move to the back.
Third, when you call, leave a message about why you’re calling. If you have a question, leave a message with the actual question. This way, your lawyer knows exactly why you’re calling and will be able to get your answer ready before he calls, saving him time on the phone. If you have a couple of questions, e-mail them to your lawyer and his paralegal. Anything you can do to show your attorney that your call isn’t going to just waste his time will help get you a call back.
Finally, when you do get your lawyer on the phone, don’t waste his time. He’s not your therapist or your friend. Ask him questions about your case, not about what to do with your life. Also, don’t pull a “bait and switch,” where you get him on the phone under the pretext of a quick question, but you really just want to bitch about how he never returns your calls. If you want to express dissatisfaction with your lawyer for not keeping you informed, do it constructively. Dropping F-bombs may feel good in the short run, but it will poison your relationship with your lawyer and with any other lawyer if you fire your current one (yes, lawyers who take your case over from another lawyer will find out how you behaved).
Tell your lawyer that you know he’s busy, but you get concerned when you don’t hear from him after (whatever amount of time it’s been since you last heard from him). Promise not to waste his time when he gets you on the phone in exchange for him promising to return your calls faster. Establish yourself as one of his clients who respects his time and doesn’t call him unless it’s important.
Practical Tips for Making Sure Your Lawyer Calls You Back
If you’ve tried the tactics contained in the previous section and still don’t get a return phone call, try these suggestions (in order):
- Make an appointment for a 15-minute phone call with your attorney. Have his paralegal check his calendar and schedule you for a time when he’s available for a 15-minute phone call. Now he can’t say he doesn’t have time to call you. Be sure to establish “who calls whom” when you make the appointment. If he fails to call you for the scheduled phone call, you need to move to the next step.
- Make an appointment to come in and meet with your attorney in person. Don’t take “no” for an answer. If his office won’t give you an appointment, remind them of his ethical duty (use the word “ethical” specifically) to keep you informed about your case, and tell them that if they don’t call you back by the end of the day with an appointment to see him, you’ll have to see what other options are available to you. Basically, you’ve just sent a coded message to your lawyer that you’re going to file a bar complaint against him if he doesn’t agree to meet with you. Do not actually come out and threaten him with the bar complaint. As long as it is a veiled threat, you can possibly mend the relationship with your lawyer and continue to work together. Once the threat is made explicitly, I doubt your lawyer will want to continue to represent you much longer.
- Stop by your lawyer’s office without an appointment (try around lunch time) and try to see him. Go only when you have the time to wait him out. He can only hide in his office for so long.
- As a final step, if none of the above advice has helped you, you need to find yourself another lawyer. You may have to fire your current lawyer before other lawyers are willing to speak to you about your case.