This week in Bigger than Biglaw, Neena Dutta explores simple techniques that a solo attorney can employ to maintain personalized client services while taking a much needed vacation.
As a solo attorney, taking a vacation requires advance planning. When I worked for a large multi-service firm, I took as many vacations as my compensation package allowed. I rarely had to worry about clients, as there was generally someone to cover my cases. I would book a flight and set my out-of-office message. No muss, no fuss.
Solo attorneys do not always have the luxury of using an out-of-office message. Often times, we forget that our clients have chosen us for the personalized services we offer, as opposed to us, plus the panache of a 100 year old firm.
My clients can reach me basically anytime. Trust me, it is a marketing strategy and a curse. I have fielded many panicked phone calls from clients at 9 P.M. where I have had to transform from a lawyer into a psychologist. What they don’t realize is that, while the phone is my one hand, a drink with an umbrella may be in the other.
Traveling on vacation domestically and internationally are vastly different. I have done both. International travel is trickier for a solo practitioner requiring more-up front planning. Regardless of your destination, a little break from the grind of firm administration, client retention and marketing is necessary for a solo’s sanity.
Here are five tips I have learned to maintain the personalized services that make your solo law firm valuable while enjoying the fruits of your success.
1. Implement a communications system.
Implementing a communications system is essential. Your practice should be set-up to field emails, phone calls and mail from any location. Your work email should be accessible across all platforms at all times.
All of the documents related to your pending cases should be cloud-based so you can refer to them if necessary, regardless of your location. This may require a few hours of your time pre-vacation to scan and organize the files, but it will save you a headache should an emergency arise. Trust me, when you’re on vacation, emergencies always arise.
2. Be prepared to avoid extraneous phone charges.
When traveling internationally, be aware of the ridiculous long distance bills you will accrue while in another country. You will be tempted to pick up the phone (if you get service) every time it rings, as it may result in new business.
Instead, I have found new technological ways to remain on the grid for my clients. There are apps such as Viber, which allow you to make and receive phone calls on your cell phone for free as long as you have a wireless Internet connection. I set my office phone to forward to my cell phone and the client is none the wiser. It maintains the illusion that I am perpetually available even when I am not.
Also, be sure to change your cell phone message. The illusion of availability is shattered when your clients calls your business phone line (set-on call forwarding) and gets your personal cell phone message.
3. Anticipate time-zone differences.
This axiom applies both to domestic and international travel. When (not if) you will have to work directly with clients during your vacation, make sure you are scheduling calls and deadlines with the time zone in mind. Remember, 9:00 P.M. in Dubai is only 12:00 P.M. in New York.
4. Notify clients in advance that you will be away.
I notify clients with particularly sensitive cases well in advance of my departure. However, I do think clients have a sixth sense about vacation time. It is Murphy’s Law. Be prepared for the client you have been courting for six months to desperately call you two hours before you are scheduled to board a plane not equipped with Wifi. It happens. This can be mitigated by following Step 1 and having everything in the cloud.
5. Do your best to shut down as much as possible.
Some self-employed attorneys, especially those in my Manhattan law office sublet, are able to shut down completely when they are on vacation. My practice isn’t there yet. But as a solo practitioner, I do not view client phone calls and emails as interruptions the same way that I did while working in Biglaw. Instead, they are positive proof that my marketing campaigns and personalized attention are valuable and my solo practice is a success.
This being said, however, do your best to shut down as much as possible. Remember, this is a holiday that you have earned. It cannot be called a vacation if you are working the entire time.
Schedule specific, short, windows of time to devote business, and let your clients know that those are the times when you will be available should an emergency arise.
Be disciplined about putting off any work that can be done when your return and limit correspondence to items that are critical. Most clients will be respectful of your vacation time as long as you give them a specific time that you will address their concerns when you return.
For the most part, clients will respect the boundaries that you set.