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Phone Etiquette for Lawyers

Summary: Once lawyers achieve a certain prominence (either in the legal community or in their own minds), they can use the telephone to emphasize this point.

The important role the telephone plays in the practice of law and in the advancement of one's career at The Firm.

Thomas Dewey, the former governor of New York and presidential candidate, was a founding partner of the law firm Dewey, Ballantine, Bushby, Palmer & Wood. One Saturday, Mr. Dewey was in need of a junior lawyer to do some work for him. From his home, he called the office to find an associate who could help.
The phone rang through to the firm's library where a young associate answered. After listening to Mr. Dewey explain what he needed to be done and that it had to be done immediately, the associate responded by saying that he couldn't possibly take on any additional work. He explained to Mr. Dewey that, as it was, he would be at the office all weekend working on projects for other lawyers that were due on Monday morning.
Mr. Dewey, not believing what he was hearing from the associate, asked, "Do you know who this is?" When the associate replied that he didn't, he was told, "This is Thomas Dewey." After thinking for a moment, the associate asked, "Do you know who this is?" When Thomas Dewey said that he didn't, the associate hung up the phone.
While this is an amusing story (just how amusing depends on whether you are an associate or a partner), it also points out the important role the telephone plays in the practice of law and in the advancement of one's career at The Firm. Mastering the telephone techniques described below can, in fact, be vital to one's success as a lawyer.
  1. Placing Calls. Once lawyers achieve a certain prominence (either in the legal community or in their own minds), they can use the telephone to emphasize this point. One of the things they do is instruct their secretaries to dial the phone for them and get the other party on the line before they pick up the receiver.

    Having your phone calls placed by your secretary lets you save time by not having to wait for the other party to come on the line. More importantly, it makes the other person on the line wait for you -- thus, emphasizing your own importance. The only problem with this is when you call another lawyer who has the same policy you do. This creates a situation of dueling secretaries who have both been instructed not to put their bosses on the phone until the other party is on. If neither secretary blinks, a stalemate results and the phone call will have to be canceled.
  2. Returning Phone Calls. Lawyers are often criticized for not returning phone calls in a timely fashion. There is a good reason for this. Successful lawyers have a set schedule for returning phone calls. Who you are in the legal world depends, largely, on whose phone calls you return and when.

    Even if you are a first-year lawyer who gets very few calls, you too should have a plan for returning phone calls. Calls from lawyers senior to you, for instance, should be returned immediately. Phone calls placed to you by junior lawyers and paralegals should be returned only if they are doing work for you and you will benefit from returning the call. If not, ignore their messages. They'll call again.

    Clients should be made to wait at least a day or two before their calls are returned. Otherwise, they might start to think you are at their beck and call. Calls from your spouse can also wait a day or two unless, of course, your spouse happens to outrank you at The Firm.
  3. Cold Calls. Because lawyers are listed in a number of publicly-available directories, we get lots of unsolicited phone calls asking us to purchase certain services. These include stock brokers, sellers of insurance, etc. Individuals selling these services often leave messages that include no reference to their business. The problem this creates is that legal recruiters use the same method. Thus, when you get a phone message from someone whose name you don't recognize, it could be someone with your ticket out of The Firm or someone who wants to sell you insurance. It is therefore probably a good idea to have your secretary return all such phone calls.

    Speaking of cold calling, this is a great way to bring new clients to The Firm. Find names online and begin calling officers and directors of major corporations. Tell them that The Firm is offering special rates if they act now and retain The Firm to file a lawsuit.
  4. Voice Mail. Ambitious lawyers are advised to make use of modern technology to score points and advance their careers. For example, voice mail can be programmed to deliver your messages to partners at any time of day. Partners don't know how these things work and are impressed when they receive messages that are marked at 4:00 a.m. The partner you are sending the message to will think you were hard at work in the middle of the night when, in fact, you are sound asleep.
  5. Home Phone. Never, ever, pick up the phone at home on a Saturday or Sunday. It is likely to be a partner commanding your presence at the office. Unlike Mr. Dewey, the partner is going to know it's you when you answer the phone and you won't get away with hanging up.
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