"Hello" - Live person answering phone concept.


The data on this issue is persuasive: law firms that have a real person answer the phone outperform those that let calls go straight to voicemail or use an auto-attendant (e.g., “Press 1 if you're a new client; Press 2 for our directory; Press 3 for billing…” etc). 

Customers form an impression of a business in the first seven seconds of contact. If a caller spends those first crucial seconds hearing a recorded “Please listen carefully, as our menu has changed…” the impression isn’t going to be great.

Key Takeaways

  • Callers want to feel that they are important. Voicemail creates the opposite impression, so eliminate it if possible.
  • If you are using an automated voice menu, don't assume it's working just because you are getting leads. Review your call log reports and make sure callers aren't hanging up or slipping through the cracks.
  • If you don't have a receptionist, seriously consider a service like LexReception. Such services may seem expensive, but they are a fraction of the cost of an employee, cover extended hours, and—if your story is like ours—may significantly increase your new client contacts. 
  • Establish a system for ensuring phones are answered in a way that both protects attorney time and enables callers to receive a prompt response.

People are Motivated by the Need to Feel Important

It’s been nearly a century since Dale Carnegie wrote “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” but the principles of that book endure. One of the most fundamental is that people are motivated by the need to feel important—and they are more likely to do business with someone who satisfies that need.

“If somebody’s picking up the phone to call, they want to talk to somebody,” The Modern Firm’s founder Brendan Chard observes. “There are many more ways for people to communicate now than there were when we first blogged about this in 2015. You should meet people where they are, using their preferred method of communication, in order to clearly communicate that they—and their business—are important to you.”

Everybody Hates Voicemail

When a client calls, they’re signaling that they want to connect with you as soon as possible. They often have what feels like an urgent problem; they need solutions, or at least a sense that they are not alone in trying to solve their pressing issue. When their call goes to voicemail, the need to feel that their problem matters—that they matter—goes unmet.

Contrast that with the experience of speaking with a live person. Having a human being answer a call creates an instant sense of being heard (rather than recorded). A receptionist can ask appropriate questions, based on a script if necessary, so that you will have more (and more relevant) information with which to respond to the caller. When a real person answers the phone, they can also perform a triage function, ensuring that truly urgent messages reach you sooner, and that less time-sensitive issues are still addressed in a timely fashion. 

Critically, a receptionist can also give a caller a sense of when they can expect to hear back from you—people under stress, as prospective legal clients often are, appreciate knowing what to expect. By simply responding to a call, your receptionist starts to build a relationship with a prospective client for you, before you even speak to them. 

At the Modern Firm, we have our phones answered live 24/7. If we're not available, the receptionist takes a message and asks follow-up questions that prepare us to serve the caller when we get back to them. This way, no caller or employee has to deal with voicemail—and we position ourselves to better meet potential clients’ needs.

Our Story

Even ten years ago, voicemail was already on the way out—we just didn’t know it yet. At the Modern Firm, we had an automated voice menu through RingCentral that was very simple to navigate. Just three options: press 1 for sales, press 2 for client support and press 3 for a staff directory. If someone didn't answer within five rings, we had friendly voicemail greetings that went to our email for quick follow-up. 

For years, we received new client leads by phone and naively assumed all was working well, until the day Brendan took a good look at the call statistics reports. We learned that, despite the simple setup, month after month, 50% of callers hung up rather than leave that voicemail. Further, many hung up even before making a selection from the initial prompts!

The day after discovering our 50% drop rate we switched to a live receptionist service. Every call is answered by a pleasant, professionally-trained receptionist. Overnight, our leads through the phones doubled! Even more impressive, that new rate wasn’t a spike: it has been maintained week after week since the switch.

The Moral of our Story

If your office has an automated system handling your calls, you absolutely need to find and analyze your call logs and statistics. There is a good chance that a significant number of callers are hanging up without you ever knowing they called. That's the big danger of automated call handling: incoming calls are happening and callers are being forced to make choices before your phone makes a peep. Without reports, you have no data to challenge your assumptions about how things are going.

There are new options available today for responding to clients that weren’t around when we first blogged about this issue. A “virtual receptionist” powered by AI is one of them. In some industries, that may work just fine, depending on how tasks are divided between humans and bots. But at the Modern Firm, we have yet to see a “virtual receptionist” that doesn’t run the risk of annoying and alienating clients even more than voice menus or voicemail. Despite everything we’ve said so far about the limitations of voicemail, if you’re choosing between it and a bot, choose voicemail.

Keeping Current Clients Happy

“If somebody's making the effort to pick up the phone, dial the numbers, and get over that hump, avoiding the convenience of all the other ways they could contact you,” Brendan notes, “that’s a pretty powerful signal that they really want to talk to a real live person. Maybe they don't want to leave an email trail of their contact. Maybe it feels more private to them to call. Maybe they want to talk instead of going back and forth over email. There are many possible reasons—some we’re never going to guess—but their intention is clear.”

It’s important to meet clients where they are. If they called on the phone, then they want to talk to a real human—not leave a message, or navigate a voice menu system, or listen carefully because your menu has changed. To get and keep clients, you need to make sure they have all the tools and channels they need to contact you in a way that works for them. Depending on your practice area, this could include texting, web forms, live chat, or apps like WhatsApp—but one thing is certain: the voice call isn’t going away. If anything, it’s becoming all the more important if it’s the channel they’ve chosen to use.

Should Attorneys Answer the Phone Themselves?

Callers deserve to speak with a human. But that doesn’t mean it should be you. Many solo and small firm attorneys try to do it all themselves, including answering incoming calls. It can be tempting to try to cut corners this way. 

Several years ago, our friend attorney coach Roy Ginsburg wrote an excellent blog post that we cite often—and the advice is just as good now as it was then. There are many reasons that answering the phone is usually not the best use of an attorney’s time, the most salient being:

  1. Interrupting your work to answer calls carries high “switching costs”—when you don’t allow yourself to fully immerse yourself in your work, you cannot get into a “flow state,” which is where the magic happens.
  2. When you return a call instead of answering a call immediately, you give yourself time to properly prepare.
  3. Returning a call promptly after receiving a message creates a positive impression.
  4. Callers don’t expect an attorney to answer the phone at a law firm. When it happens, they may infer that the attorney isn’t in demand if they have the time to answer phones, or that they are not successful enough to hire staff. Few people are eager to retain such an attorney.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that the urgency of matters in your practice area (for example, in criminal law) mean more than these concerns about how you’re perceived. You know your practice best, and can best determine if it makes sense for you to answer your own phone. But don’t assume! Take a look at Roy’s post "Don't Answer Your Phone" before you choose your approach.

If you do answer your own phone, you may have to decide whether you have to let some calls go to voicemail—and if so, which ones? Some attorneys pick up incoming calls from new or prospective clients right away, because those people may have more urgent matters or simply need more responsiveness to build the relationship. Calls from established clients may go to voicemail, to be returned as soon as possible. 

Other attorneys choose to nurture those established relationships by picking up calls from longtime clients as they come in. They may let prospective clients leave a message so that they can better prepare to answer their questions before speaking to them. 

As always, the decision about which calls to pick up and which to return later depends on your practice, the nature of your clients’ concerns, and your relationships with them. You don’t have to grab every call on the first ring, nor let them all pile up in your voice message system—but whatever you decide to do, be intentional about it.  

We’re always happy to share our experience and insights with attorneys. Have a question you’d like to see answered on a future blog? Ask it here. And of course, if you need help with any of your web or marketing needs we're just a friendly call or email away.