All time management experts will tell you that it is a huge time waster to let phone calls (and emails) interrupt a work task. But there’s an even better reason: A potential client will instantly think that you are a responsive lawyer.

Although this may sound counterintuitive, you will impress potential clients by ignoring their initial phone call and then calling them back promptly (usually within a few hours). This is true whether you answer your own phone or have a receptionist do it for you.

It’s All About Managing Expectations

I always remind each lawyer I coach that client service is all about managing expectations.

Let’s assume a potential client calls in the hopes of retaining you. Do you suppose that potential clients expect you will be there to talk about their legal issue? I would say no. In this day and age, most people realize that lawyers lead busy lives. They do not sit at their desks waiting for the phone to ring or screening calls from potential clients. Thus, your potential client would probably not be disappointed if forced to leave a message; they didn’t expect to talk to you immediately any way.

Let’s play this out further. The potential client now leaves a brief message either via voicemail or with your receptionist. What is that potential client’s expectation about when you will actually return the call? I would say that most would hope for a returned call within 24 hours, but would not be surprised if it took longer. Some may not be surprised even if the call is never returned.

So what if you returned the call within an hour or two? What would be a typical prospective client’s reaction? One word: thrilled. By promptly returning the call, you have exceeded expectations without saying a word. You have already scored points long before you have opened a file.

This Works for Most—Not All—Practice Areas

A few caveats. For starters, I would not recommend this approach for criminal defense attorneys who obtain most of their clients via Web searches, Yellow Pages ads or the like. Many of these potential clients compile a list of lawyers to call—if one doesn’t answer immediately, they will simply move on down the line. So if you have the type of practice where your typical client shops around with little time or patience to wait for a returned call, ignore my suggestion.

On the other hand, if you have the type of practice where most of your business is from referrals, I would recommend not answering your phone. For these potential clients, you have already been vouched for and they are probably not shopping around. They will not take their business elsewhere if you’re not there to take their first call.

And if you return the call within a few hours, these same potential clients will be more likely to hire you. They’ll think “Huh, a lawyer who returns phone calls promptly; now, whoever thought that possible?!”