Email, phone, text, voice message, pigeon – when a client needs to contact their lawyer, they will generally use all means available to them. Well, maybe not pigeon… but I am sure they’d use one if they could!
I’ve decided to write on this topic because of late I seem to have had this discussion with more than a handful of early career lawyers: do you respond to emails immediately or do you wait? And they so vigorously defend their choice – it almost gets as heated as a political debate.
Let me start by describing a situation that I’m sure every millennial has found themselves in.
Family member X (generally mother or father) tries to contact you. You do not answer/miss the phone call. Next time you see family member X (generally mother or father) they say something along the lines of: “You always have your phone with you, so, how is it possible that when I call, you don’t answer?”
Found yourself here at some point? I know I definitely have. Both my parents seem to pull this one on me every time I see them. Keep this situation in mind, I will come back to it.
Email response time: two types of people
When it comes to email there’s generally two types of people.
The snappy replier
Those who respond immediately. They see the email come in and if they’re able to send through a response straight away, they will. Even if it’s a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ reply. It’s on the spot. They don’t want to wait to consider anything if there’s no need to.
The delayed responder
Then there’s those who like to wait. They probably (most likely) see the email come in straight away but they don’t want to reply immediately. They want to think about the email, and send through a meaningful response. The delayed responder is going to wait until they have some uninterrupted time to respond.
24 hours is key
Here’s the thing – it doesn’t actually matter whether you’re a snappy replier or a delayed responder. For us lawyers, 24 hours is the time frame you have to get back to your client.
Remember, your client knows you have a computer, smart phone, tablet and potentially an Apple watch, so they know you have received their email within 24 hours. If your response comes outside 24 hours, your client starts to feel like family member X, if not worse, given they’re paying you for a service.
Interestingly enough, I went looking to see if anyone else applies the 24 hour time frame and it just so happens that US Immigration Attorney, Harlan York is all for it. In an article for the National Jurist York says he works with the notion that all clients, big or small, really want one thing: an immediate response. And, it’s so true.
What else does your client expect?
Over and above responding within 24 hours, your client wants a response with substance. This shows the client you have listened (or read the email) and you actually care.
If you don’t offer your client a response with substance, bad things start to happen like they begin to lose faith in you and think your head isn’t in the game. Don’t let it get to this point.
You’re a snappy replier? Don’t let adrenaline take over
If an email comes in and you know you can offer a proper response, go for it. However, if you are in any way unsure of what your response should be, (i.e. if there is a risk of giving incorrect advice) avoid the instinct to respond straight away.
If you absolutely feel the need to respond immediately, then let your client know you have received their email and will get back to them in the next 24 hours. Then, if you need to, flag the email and set yourself a reminder to respond.
I can definitely be a snappy replier – my trick is to stop and digest the email. If I can’t offer my client a response with substance, I delay responding until I can. Or I start drafting a response, and save it to my drafts for when I have time to look at it properly.
You’re a delayed responder? Time management is your best friend
The risk with being a delayed responder is that time can escape you, and before you know it a couple of business days have passed. Then you have to apologise to your client for taking so long to reply. If you find yourself apologising more than a couple of times, your client is going to think you are too busy for them. Not good.
When I first started in my law career, I was a bit of a delayed responder. Only because sometimes I wasn’t sure how to respond. So, I used to go check with my supervisor before I sent a response. However, in a busy law practice – checking with your supervisor can sometimes mean a day or two.
What worked for me was setting aside some time at the end of each day to respond to my emails. If you need to check your response with a supervisor (like I used to), set aside 10 minutes of their morning or evening to run through the issues you’re not sure of. To get that 10 minutes in – I used to stand in the kitchen with my supervisor whilst he made his morning coffee to go through my questions!
The take away
So, early career lawyer rule 101 – respond to your clients within 24 hours, and get into this habit from the beginning.
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