Today’s Two for Tuesdays is going to address a problem I’ve seen fairly consistently over the last decade in legal – a failure to respond to emails. It’s a rather HUGE pet peeve of mine, and I want to talk today about why it’s important, as well as another tip for managing your professional relationships.
Tip One: Answer. Your. Emails.
I know attorneys are busy. I know that their time, literally, is money. So I can be forgiving of the attorneys who may not read and answer all of the emails that I send them.
It boggles my mind when someone emails an attorney to say that they want to refer work to them, and the attorney doesn’t answer.
If someone sent me an (legitimate) email that basically says, "hey, I want to pay you money," I would answer it (Nigerian princes notwithstanding).
I hear regularly from attorneys that they would like to develop new business, bring in new clients, do more work (especially in this economy!), so if that’s the case, how are you "too busy" when a referral source or client sends you an email with a request?
All attorneys have an assistant. All. Of. Them.
So why not deputize your assistant to reply to the email with "Thanks, I’ve received your message and will get back to you shortly after I have had the chance to review it." It lets the recipient know that you’ve received the email and it’s not lost in the ether, and it shows that you’re responsive, without committing to anything.
By the way, responsive = "I care about you and your business."
And that applies to client emails during a matter that you’re working on as well. Many of the attorneys I know will not answer emails if the answer is going to be "no" or "I don’t know." And that’s a mistake, because, responsiveness shows that you care.
We know from recent General Counsel Corners that GCs will often start with a small matter to get a sense of how the attorney handles their work, with the lesson being that there are no small matters. So to me, that also says there are no insignificant emails – if a client emails you and wants an update, email them back. Even if the answer is that you don’t have an update. They will appreciate that more than hearing nothing at all.
How do I know? Because they say it all.the.time. Every general counsel I’ve talked to, or listened to, says that they want their lawyers to be more responsive. All of them.
So ask yourself – am I being as responsive as I can be?
And one more note, before I get off of my email soapbox – what I’ve noticed in my ten years in legal is that the busiest, most successful attorneys I know, the rainmakers, are also the ones who always read and respond to my emails within 24 hours. That’s not an exaggeration. The attorneys who travel the most, work with the most clients, manage their firms, and by all lawyer-standards for success are successful are also emailing me back, and emailing me back quickly.
So it IS possible to be busy, successful AND responsive. Give it a shot today. To recap – responsiveness in emailing means:
- If someone sends you a new matter or a referral question, respond to that email within 24 hours, even if just to say that you’ve received it. Traveling or busy with another matter? Have your assistant email back with a time frame for your response.
- If you don’t have an answer for someone, but it’s time to update them, or they’ve sent you an email looking for information, replying with "I don’t know," or "I don’t have that information yet" is perfectly suitable. And FAR superior to not responding at all.
- It’s worth saying again – deputize your assistants to respond to client and other emails. Obviously, they can’t provide legal advice, and shouldn’t, but they can at least acknowledge receipt and offer a time frame for which you will reply.
Responsiveness says that you care, and non-responsiveness says that you don’t. Which will you choose?
Tip Two: Managing Expectations
For me, tip two really goes hand in hand with tip one, and that’s about managing expectations. It starts with understanding each client you’re working with, and what they expect from you.
How do I do this? Well, it’s all about my commitments.
- When I tell someone I’ll get them something by the end of the day, and it looks like that won’t happen, I’ll shoot them a quick email to let them know that it’s not going to arrive, and when they can expect it.
- When I receive something that I need to review, I give the other person an approximate time frame for when they’ll get my feedback – that time frame will depend on how busy I am that day, how pressing the project is, and what might be in the pipeline. Then, I work to meet or exceed that deadline.
- Regular and honest communication is key. I will be honest if I’m swamped and something isn’t on my priority list about when I’ll realistically be able to handle it.
- With very few exceptions (like travel interruptions), I will always get back to my clients within 24 hours and drop whatever else I’m doing to assist them. Without my attorneys, I have no job, so they are always my number one priority. The running joke in the ILN is that between our Executive Director and I, one of us is pretty much always awake – I am a night owl, and regularly up until 2am, while he is an early bird and usually awake by 4am. With an international membership base, that can be very useful!
- If I get a question, and the answer is going to be "no," first, I’ll try to identify whether there is someone else that can assist them, or answer the question (or if I can find out the answer for them). If the answer will still be "no," I’m upfront and honest with the person about it. This goes back to the non-responsiveness issue we discussed above. I’d rather not waste the other person’s time with wondering whether I’ll respond or not, with them having to write me an email or call me, etc. Not everyone will be happy to hear "no," but being honest will bring you far more goodwill than avoiding the issue will.
So those are my two tips for today – when we get mired down in the day-to-day minutiae of our work, it can be easy to forget that some common courtesies are really essential to good relationship building and client management. What do you think?