CPM Column

A Case of First Impressions

Many law firms have a singular marketing call to action – “Contact Us.” Whether via call, email, submitting a query through a website form, online chat, direct message through social media, or sending a text message, most firm marketing focuses on getting someone to take the next step. But what is the experience of the potential client when they act? A legal marketer recently suggested that “if your receptionist answers the phone ‘law office’ you don’t have a receptionist, you have a business growth assassin.”

First, Answer the Phone

In 2019 legal tech company Clio performed an experiment. They called 500 random law firms that had an active web presence and a publicly available phone number. About 27 percent of the firms they called either did not answer the phone or return a voicemail. These results were not an anomaly. In 2016 the ABA Law Practice Division’s Social Media, Legal Blogs and Websites Committee undertook a similar endeavor. One out of every three callers to a law firm did not get to speak to a person. One out of every four callers did not hear the name of the firm when their call was answered. In more than half the calls the person who answered the phone did not identify themselves by name and failed to ask for the caller’s name. How (and if) your office answers the phones matter. According to the 2014 Findlaw U.S. Consumer Legal Needs Survey, 74 percent of prospects beginning a search online end up contacting the office via phone.

All lawyers in private practice should read and absorb the findings from the Clio Trends Report 2019 and the ABA study.  Take a close look at how the firm is responding to initial contacts from prospective clients. It is not just about a quick response, but also the quality of the response that helps provide a great client experience.

Can They Hear You Smiling?

When a receptionist answers the phone at your law firm, are callers greeted with a generic (and sometimes snippy) “law firm?” If you are in an office environment with a shared receptionist, can the phone system be updated to indicate which firm phone number has been dialed? It might be time to upgrade the phones to a VoIP system. Alternatively, a solo in a shared office or working remotely can investigate outsourcing to a professional virtual receptionist service that focuses on making the caller’s experience as pleasant and productive as possible.

Everyone has bad days and gets busy. Having a phone script for receptionists can help with consistency in message and tone. A script will provide a way for the person answering the phone to focus on the tone of voice and not what to say. How do you want callers to be greeted? A warm and inviting: “Hello, this is Janice at H & L Law Firm, how can I help you today?” The prompts in the script ensure all information is delivered. Empower the person answering the phone to take down information, schedule appointments and take care of the caller, whether it is a prospective client wanting to book an initial consultation, or an existing client looking for an answer. Do not make it obvious that calls are being screened. Inquire about the name and business need of the client, then, instruct the receptionist to say, “let me check and see if Mr. James is available.” After a brief hold come back and offer options – take a message, send the caller to voicemail, or speak with his assistant – whatever is appropriate for the situation. When taking a message, make sure to repeat back important information like proper spelling of the caller’s name, return phone number and email address. Firms can also consider a “help desk” or ticketing system to ensure timely responses to requests from clients (prospective, current and former).

Leave a Message at the Beep

If you are solo or give out your personal mobile phone number, make sure you have a voicemail set up. A generic “the mobile customer at 919-000-0000 is not available” is hardly a way to greet a potential or current client. Simply introduce yourself and request a name and callback number. Former solo Sam Glover relates lessons learned when he realized he was running a self-centered practice versus a client-centered practice. He had decided to manage his time by letting all his calls go to voicemail and telling callers in his outbound message he only responded at certain times of the day. While that was very convenient for him, he realized this technique was inconsiderate and ineffective. He also points out that voicemail greetings that include “I’ll get back to you at my convenience” are cold and not client-centered.

Note that if your firm’s voicemail has 10 minutes worth of recording about how your firm is handling issues because of COVID-19, it is probably time to expedite that message.

Other Initial Communication Touch Points

Neither the ABA nor the Clio study explored how firms are responding to two newer ways law firms are providing for initial contact. One is via text. Many firms are adding “Call or Text” in their call to action on the firm’s website. Are the text messages being responded to in a timely manner? What about law firm pages on social media that beckon communication? Systems should be in place to ensure that the firm sees and responds to contacts on social media. On sites like Facebook the responsiveness on business pages is provided by the system. It is not a good sign when a firm’s Facebook page indicates that requests for information are not responded to promptly.

If your firm has a “contact us” form online, review it and make sure it is easy to fill out, does not ask for too much information, appropriately contextualizes disclaimers, and works well on mobile devices. Be sensitive to gender diversity and instead of asking for “gender” ask for pronouns.

Getting Measurements

To provide excellent customer experience and to turn leads into clients, law firms should check to see how well they are responding to phone calls and emails. How are the phones answered? How are emails answered? If your firm is leveraging an answering service or virtual receptionist, have someone call to see how quickly the phones are answered, if the greeting is satisfactory and how the service responds to questions.

For solos with no support, virtual or otherwise, answering the phone or responding to emails in a timely manner is extra tricky. Setting up automation may help relieve some of the pressures of a quick response.

In addition to “secret shopping” your firm, send brief questionnaires to your clients during representation and at the close of the matter. Make sure to ask about the effectiveness and tone of communication. Consider also following up with potential clients who ultimately did not retain the firm to see if there was anything the firm could have done to improve.


Many people calling law firms are stressed out, anxious and may have little experience with lawyers. Make sure that you have systems and processes in place to be responsive to whatever form of initial communication your firm has put in marketing (phone, text, email, form, etc.) and give clients the attention and compassion they seek.

Catherine Sanders Reach is director of the North Carolina Bar Association Center for Practice Management.