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Why You Should NEVER Answer Your Own Phone

woman in the office wearing black sweater and blue shirt holding a phone that is on a table
I don’t love absolutes in language, such as never or always. However, in rare circumstances, such as this one – they’re appropriate. You should NEVER answer your own business phone. Never. Let’s explore and explain.

We talk to lawyers every week who still answer their own phones. The most common reason we hear is, “If I miss a call, I won’t get the client.”  We politely disagree and then rephrase the statement:  “If your phone isn’t answered at all, you won’t get the client.”  Your phone should be answered, just not by you. When we dig a bit deeper, however, and ask how their phone is answered when they’re in court, with a client, in a meeting, or at home at night – all of which adds up to more than 70% of any busy lawyer’s day, by the way – we’re usually told: “I have voicemail, and I call right back.”  Yikes.  So they’re breaking their own rule because their phone isn’t answered.

Look – the point here isn’t to be too harsh on the individual. It’s to drive home the point emphatically. And just so we’re clear that this is a total no-judgment zone – I used to answer my own phones. I’m not perfect. Never have been. But I’ve also built a nine-lawyer, 22-person law firm, so I’ve learned a few things along the way.

Once you open your mind and honestly review the facts (as in, stop telling yourself stories), it’s hard to understand how layers can work so hard to get clients only to sabotage most of their leads, except the ones that call at the perfect time. And how often does that happen, anyway? And what happens when it does? You’re now busier, so you miss the next one. The cycle repeats. You can’t figure out why you’re stuck on the hamster wheel of hard work but no growth. It’s because you’re not delegating. That’s the bottom line. The first and most important item to delegate? Your phone.

So, let’s examine the reasons you should NEVER EVER EVER (emphasis added!!!) answer your own phone:

1. When You Answer Your Own Phone, The Potential Client Immediately Thinks: “Out of work lawyer, I can hire them on the cheap.”

If you have access to the boss of a company, you’re much more likely to expect – and ask for – a discount. You presume you’re on their level. Don’t believe me – if a brain surgeon was his own receptionist, are you hiring that brain surgeon? You’re lying if you say yes. If that brain surgeon has a receptionist but answers overflow calls and makes herself readily accessible for meetings and coffee? Your impression is that a brain surgeon needs the work, and therefore the price is negotiable.

2. When You Return Calls From Your Cell Phone, You Eliminate a Professional Barrier.

Why are so many lawyers insistent on giving their cell phone numbers to their clients? I’ve heard many lawyers brag about the fact that their clients have their cell phone numbers. Here is where I will NOT use an absolute – if you represent famous or super-high-net-worth clients, give them your dang cell phone. However, that’s less than 1% of us, so let’s quickly move on. For the rest of us, getting calls at all times of the day is miserable and defeats the purpose of making money in the first place – to have a better, more enjoyable life. Additionally, your clients don’t want to be charged for personal calls. Next thing you know, you’re getting texts. Ever billed for a text? Tough explanation to the client, who now accuses you of nickel-and-diming them. Worse yet, if you agree to do something via text, you now have to remember to get that task done. And if you’re using your cell phone, you probably don’t have someone to delegate that task to anyway. So the 10-minute back and forth costs you an hour, plus mental capacity. It took me way too long to realize that’s why I wasn’t making more money.

3. When a Potential Client Reaches Your Voicemail, They Immediately Think: “Broke lawyer, on their own, what am I paying them for?”

Don’t ask your friends and family to give you feedback on this point. Friends and family protect your ego. They encourage you (that’s a good thing). But they’re dishonest with you to your detriment under the guise of helping you. When you call a very small doctor’s office after hours and get their voicemail, you subconsciously wonder about the level of medical service you’re going to receive, especially in an emergency. Your clients are wondering the exact same thing about you! You want your clients to know that you have the actual ability to handle emergencies. You want them to feel safe and taken care of. If your phones are going to voicemail when you’re busy, how can your client track you down? And if you’re answering your own phone in the first place, how can you possibly have time to handle that emergency anyway?! With clear procedures and policies on what constitutes an actual emergency, you can train your executive receptionist to contact you when a client has a major problem. Imagine being able to confidently tell a client, “Listen, unlike most law firms, my staff knows exactly how to reach me when you have an emergency because we have defined policies and procedures for you in dire situations.”  Job well done. Believe it or not, the client does not want you answering the phone in an emergency. They won’t feel special, and they’ll worry you’re too accessible and won’t have the time to handle their emergency. Do you see how deep this psychology goes? You can fix a law firm by fixing the intake system. It’s more important than anything you do. I’ll write more about that another time.

4. When You Answer Your Own Phone, You’re Making $10.00 An Hour.

I used to fight this one. People fight this one with me all the time. I don’t know how to properly and accurately articulate this one so that everyone gets it. Logically, I do. It’s factual. But emotionally? Forget about it. And I understand – when I first started my law firm, I didn’t have many clients. I usually had no idea where my next paycheck was coming from. I couldn’t fathom the idea of hiring someone, even part-time, at $10.00/hour, to answer the phone. “How would I pay this person,” I would ask (but really tell) myself. I wish I had said, “Here’s how dummy!!”  In the 15 minutes you took to answer your phone, listen to the person go on and on about a problem that you can’t help with (respectfully speaking, of course), tell that person you can’t help, listen to their rebuttal, explain again that it’s not the type of law you practice, listen to the person gripe about lawyers then ask for a referral, then give them names over the phone of someone who can help, then listen to them ask for that info in an email, then try to get off the call, then send that person an email……. (I hope you resonate with this, as it’s painful just to type it), you could have billed $75.00!!!! That’s basically an entire day of pay for your receptionist – for just one 15-minute phone call! My exclamation point over-usage is intentional here, as I recall so many lawyers fighting me on this point, and our mission is to help you delegate your way to freedom so that we won’t back down, dang it! Anyhow, the next response we usually get is, “But what if I don’t have that work to do?”  First of all, you do. Second of all, if you really don’t, then you need to be networking, calling referral sources, setting up lunches, or emailing someone who can potentially save you business. Arguably, if you don’t really have the work, then you need someone to handle your phones even more because it’s imperative that you spend your time in ways that make you money, not by being your own receptionist. Finally, the counterpoint many lawyers try to make on this point is that their phone only rings 2-3 times per day, so they’re not losing that much time. Here’s where it really takes some honest self-reflection not to lose the point: three (3) calls per day is 15 calls per week. Fifteen calls per week of 15 minutes each, at $300.00/hour, is $1,125.00/week and about $4,500.00/month. So not only are you losing that billable time, you’re unlikely to connect with the high-paying, respectful clients that actually do call you because of the first three points we make above. Moreover, not only can you afford to pay that person based on the math we just did, they have an additional 6-7 hours per day to help you in other areas. So when they save you an additional 4 hours per day, now you’re billing an extra $1,200.0/day or $5,000.00/week, but you’re also home by 6 p.m. to see your kids. Imagine that! True story – I was stuck at $10,000.00/month for months and couldn’t figure out how to grow. I hired my first employee – after finally suffering enough pain -and I doubled my revenue – the very next month. Finally – if you’re saying in your head, “But I can bill 5 hours a day AND answer my own phones,” the national average solo attorney bills a whopping .8 hours a day. That’s it. I could go on and on here, and I feel the need to. However, I won’t. If you’ve actually read this far, and you still disagree, call me, and we’ll argue (in a fun way) it out. Only rest assured, I won’t be answering my own phone!

5. Having Someone Screen Calls Saves You Thousands of Dollars.

As discussed at length above, you’ll never receive the perfect potential client lead at the perfect time. Most of your calls will be from people you can’t help. My firm still receives 10-15 calls a week from people we can’t help. Having someone else politely turn that PNC away saves you lots of time – and if that person never gets a consultation with you, you save tons of money. There’s (almost – see, absolutes are rare) nothing more frustrating than being excited to meet with a potential client, only to learn that you can’t actually solve their problem. That’s not the client’s fault (unless they lied to you). That’s your fault and a problem that can be fixed by proper screening during intake.

6. Ruby Receptionist, Back Office Betty, and Other Answering Services Cost You Way More Than You Think.

Listen, an answering service is better than nothing, believe me. But the cheapest option with Ruby is about $500.00/month. If you go over the usage, it will jump up to $1,000.00/month. Additionally, it’s never the same person that answers the phone, they mispronounce your name, and all they’re doing is taking a message. Worse yet, callers know when an answering service answers the phone, even a good one. They can’t answer any questions or really be helpful in any way. They can’t do your intake or return calls in a meaningful way. At my law firm, we use Ruby as a backup to backup only. It prevents potential clients from hanging up and calling another law firm, but only momentarily. This takes me to our last point…..

7. Your Likelihood of Speaking to a Lead Decreases by 50% if You Wait Longer Than 5 Minutes to Return a Call.

This should frighten you. Only five (5) minutes. That sounds absurd. But you’re a consumer as well, so what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If you have an answering service only and no one to handle calls properly, you’re flushing money down the toilet. On the other hand, if you fix this problem, your competitors are flushing money down the toilet, and it’s coming straight to you. I’ve experienced this in my own law firm. I’m not that terrific. I call it winning by default. Most other firms are just that bad. We have the 5-minute rule at my firm, and we do the best we can to stick to it (not after hours, of course because calling a client back at 9 p.m. violates number 2 above in a big way).

So, How Do I Fix This?

Look, I honestly don’t care if you hire another company or hire someone in-office to answer your phones. In a weird way, I’d rather be right about this point than get your business. That’s how strongly I feel about it. However, perhaps the best news of all is that you can hire someone to answer your phones, make calls, and set up appointments, AND still have time to accomplish 5 hours of other tasks per day for you – for an incredibly reasonable price by working with us at Get Staffed Up. Sincerely, please stop answering your own phones today!!

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