What to do When Your Lawyer Won’t Call You Back

If a client calls, emails, or even sends a letter to their law firm, the attorney should do everything they can to respond reasonably quickly. It’s simple as that.

I’m Gary Nissenbaum.

Welcome to another edition of Laying Down the Nissen-law, a podcast in which we seek to do a deep dive into the pressing issues confronting businesses, both large and small, that seek to protect themselves from legal pitfalls.

Please keep in mind that this podcast is not a substitute for legal advice. Consult an attorney for any specific situations that require representation.

And now…on to the Nissen-law…

What Do You Do If Your Attorney’s Not Calling You Back?

What do you do if your attorney’s not calling you back? That’s a tough question, isn’t it? The issue here is to what extent are they intentionally avoiding you, versus simply not being able to handle your call with all the other things that they have to do in a given day, and setting aside the fact that we don’t know why this is happening, maybe the bigger question is, what do you about it?

Well, obviously there’s no one answer and there’s no complete answer even if there were one answer. But what I can tell you is that there are certain principles that I think apply to this generally, there are certain patterns, and hopefully, some of what I’m about to tell you will give you some context and you can use those things to understand what’s going on, why it’s going on, and then weave your way through so that you’re able to get in touch with your attorney and deal with whatever the issue is that you have to discuss.

How Do Law Firms Work?

So the first thing is, how do law firms work? There’s no one answer to that but I will give you a general answer which might be helpful in this instance. There are law firms that are high-volume and low-volume. High-volume usually means consumer-oriented law firm. Examples of this might be a matrimonial practice, a family law practice. Another example might be criminal defense. Another example might be personal injury. These are situations in which the clients that are coming to the law firm generally have not been there before. Or if they have been there before, they’ve had one matter—maybe two.

I mean, after all, how many times are you going to be involved in a divorce? How many times are you going to be involved in a personal injury matter? How many times are you going to be involved in a criminal matter? So this is a situation in which volume is critical to the practice’s health. There have to be enough consumers coming to that practice so that there is a volume of work coming in, so that as those matters resolve, as they finish, new ones are there to replace them.

In that sort of situation, there’s a real need for standardization. There’s a real need to sort of create protocols so that the clients are handled separately and in a distinct way but in the same general manner. In other words, phone calls are returned this way. Letters are written this way. Briefs get out the door this way. Legal research is double-checked this way. The idea is that that standardization, those protocols, are there so that someone who could handle ten cases or fifteen cases comfortably if every one of them were different and they were essentially reinventing the wheel each time, that that person can then handle 25 cases, 30, 40, 50, because there’s a level of standardization in how they’re handled.

Individual Attention Might Not Be Critical to the Actual Success or Failure of Your Case

In that sort of situation, the idea that a client can call out of the blue and simply ask such things as, you know, how’s my case going, what do you think I should be doing here, when do you think it’ll be over, and have these general conversations, becomes an impediment to the standardization concept. So is that why your attorney is not calling you back? Is it because you are in a practice area that is subject to standardization to allow for more clients to be served by the same lawyer with a consequent inability of that lawyer to give the kind of individual attention that you might want but that might not be critical to the actual success or failure of the lawsuit or resulting legal matter that you have hired them to do.

In other words, do you need an attorney to hold your hand on things that are not directly relevant to whether or not you’re going to win your case? Or would you rather that they simply win the case and involve you when they need you in order to do something that will help that effort. It’s an important question and I’m not even saying that there’s one right answer to that. What I’m saying is, talk about that with your lawyer at the beginning. Lay that out when you are retaining that lawyer and make it clear what your expectations are.

If you say at the very beginning, before you retain them, “This is what I anticipate. That if I call you up, I won’t waste your time, but I may want to just check in with you and I need you to call me back. And if you can’t make that promise, that I’ll get called back in a reasonable amount of time, I’ve got to go to a different lawyer.”

Be Clear About What You Expect from Your Lawyer

And that lawyer might have a very honest and open discussion with you about that, in which you either decide, “Hey, maybe I don’t have to call them whenever I want to. Maybe it’s okay if they just give me a three month update or something like that.” Or you might decide, “Hey, this is not the lawyer for me,” shake hands, move on. But my point is, it’s something you should discuss at the outset so the expectations are the same.

Another way that law firms are configured is low-volume. Low-volume would be area of focus in which there are far less clients, but the client matters are more complicated as a whole. That doesn’t mean that the high-volume cases aren’t complicated—of course, high-volume practices have complicated cases—no one would say different. But in a low-volume practice involving an area of law that’s particularly complicated, the number of clients has a limit. It’s just not possible to handle a high volume of cases where they all are that complex.

An area of law like that might be securities law, the issuance of stock and return for investments, maybe even public offerings. Highly complicated. Tax law, highly complicated. E-commerce and digital law and intellectual property. The kind of things that our firm does involving business law, involving that digital practice. These are areas of law that, generally speaking, the firm is not set up for a high volume of clients. It is set up to give more individualized attention and do a deeper dive with each one of its clients in particular.

Lawyers Getting Paid By the Hour Return Your Calls… And You Pay For Those Calls

In those cases, you may very well be able to get your phone calls returned more readily and the communication may flow a lot better. But keep in mind, that there’s also another aspect to that, which is that when you have personal injury cases that are being handled on a contingent basis—meaning that the lawyer takes a percentage of what they win—but if they don’t win, they don’t necessarily get paid unless there’s a statute or some other reason why the legal fees would be paid. In a business-oriented commercial practice of some type, generally speaking, the lawyers are being paid by the hour.

Under those conditions, you may be able to have your calls returned more readily. It’s possible. There may be less clients and therefore more leeway in doing that, more flexibility, but you’re being charged for those calls. So the best advice is to keep them short and keep them focused on what really has to be discussed. That’s just basic math, which is the time is proportional to the money that you have to pay to hire that lawyer’s time.

The bottom line here is that just because the lawyer’s not calling you back does not mean that it’s anything personal. In fact, what it could mean is that the lawyer is actually trying to focus on winning your case, or doing something that will advance your settlement strategy. And the reason that they’re not calling you back is that they have a limited amount of time. They can either call you back and discuss the case generally, or they can do the work on the case and try to win. And hopefully, that is the reason you’re not being called back.

Be Open and Honest with Your Lawyer and Ask for the Same in Return

Having said that, there is always the possibility that there’s been some kind of breakdown in the attorney-client relationship, and I don’t want to minimize that. Any kind of people situation can involve misunderstandings, can involve people feeling slighted—tone, manner, word usage, can all contribute to a personality issue between the lawyer and the client. And if you have any sense that that’s what’s going on, what I would urge you to do is name it. Actually say that that’s what you think is happening, and you want to discuss it, put it out in the open. And as they say, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” to actually discuss it and get past it.

If you feel that there is some kind of personal issue that is inhibiting the communication, you really should be naming that and urging your attorney to discuss it in a forthright way. And the way to do that is to simply give them permission, and basically say, “Look, I think there might be some kind of personality issue here or somehow you’re not happy with me, and if that’s what’s going on, do not hesitate to tell me that. I promise you, I will be open to hearing it. I want to hear it. I want to see if we can improve this. Having said that, keep in mind it’s a two-way street. So I may be saying some things in return about the way that you’ve been interacting with me. But hopefully, we can get past this.”

And I urge you to have that sort of open and honest communication with your attorney.

This is Gary Nissenbaum. You have been listening to Laying Down the Nissen-law. Thank you.

Legal disclaimer: The information contained in this podcast does not constitute legal advice, nor a legal opinion. It should not be relied upon in any specific situation. The reader is urged to consult an attorney of their choosing with respect to any legal question they may have.

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Contact the Nissenbaum Law Group to schedule an appointment at 908-686-8000 or feel free to use the following form to e-mail us. Please include as much information as you can to ensure that we are able to handle your request as quickly as possible.

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