In this time of forced social distancing, with many people working remotely from home or on quarantine, I have been using some of my time to make calls or otherwise contact clients about outstanding proposals, etc. I always have a stack of people to call upon, so I’ve been reaching out. The results of these contacts have been enlightening on an issue I hadn’t considered. That is, how lawyers, and their staff, “manage” the impressions they create when working remotely. Melissa and I have, for a long time, worked remotely. Our “real” work always has a remote component when we are in the field doing mock trials, focus groups, etc. We have to be where the action is – the trial venue usually – so we are out and about. I also spend considerable time calling on people for meetings, lunches, etc. Yet, during these times, it is important to me to be accessible to clients and potential clients. For years, even before I worked as a trial consultant, I was self employed as a photographer. I carried a pager and was paged whenever someone left me a voice mail. I also had a car phone when that meant simplex radio communication, that is, walkie talkie style telephone service. I had to be able to communicate from wherever I was working. It didn’t matter where I was calling from, only that I called. Pay phones, calling cards, they were all a part of being available. Now it is much easier. Call my office phone extension. If I am there, I’ll answer, if I don’t answer, the call goes to my cell phone and the caller never knows, or needs to know, where I am when I answer the phone. That is transparency. If someone answers my phone in my absence, the call can be transferred to me, wherever I am. In fact, for several years, Melissa and I worked remotely, in a different city, 1/3 of our time. Callers were routed from the regular office number to our phones in the other city – without telling the caller. Email, in the days of smart phones and tablets, similarly makes us available, transparently. What I’ve found interesting in calling clients is that about 2/3 of the calls are being handled in less than transparent ways. The calls go to voice mail, or sometimes to a receptionist who tells me “Mr. or Ms. Attorney is not available, but I’ll send them a message.” In the interest of client service, it seems to me that law firms are behind the times in the transparency and fluency of communications. The stay at home rule is exposing this gap. Email responses have been faster than usual – they are working. My observation has to do with the need for businesses to find ways for everyone to be available as if they were sitting in their offices. Efficiency and client service suffer when this is not the case.
One of my favorite “gate keeper” responses, when I ask to speak with one of Magnus’ clients (including returning his/her call) is “Please hold. Let me see if he wants to take your call.” Wow! Talk about a put down! That kind of response makes me wish I never called. Far better to say “Please hold while I check her availability.” I hear many things from our clients’ assistants that I never allow Magnus’ employees to say to people who call me. Now that many people, including attorneys, who have never worked anyplace except their fancy offices are learning to work from home, where conditions are not as conducive to promoting a professional office atmosphere, it is tempting to let down one’s guard. I read an account today of a judge who has developed strict rules of conduct for attorneys who participate in video conferences from home, necessitated by the current pandemic. These rules include: get out of bed, don’t wear a swimsuit and sit by your pool, and in general, conduct yourselves professionally as if you were in the courthouse. When David and I try to reach our clients, it is somewhat humorous, but at the same time, off putting, to be told “Please hold. Mr. Attorney is working at home today and he is probably in the shower right now.” What’s wrong with saying he is not available and then asking when would be a convenient time for him to return my call? I’m thrilled we don’t do a lot of video conferences with Magnus’ clients. Having participated in many more than usual with vendors, colleagues, friends, and family is providing me with way too much information about their grooming habits and lifestyle than I ever wanted to have. The main thing I have learned is that, to be as effective when working remotely as one is when working in a professional office requires us to sit up straight, mind our manners, and conduct ourselves with as much decorum as we would do in person. (And, as a final note, don’t tell everything there is to tell about what your boss is doing when I call. I really don’t need to know anything except if he or she is available to speak with me.)