Do you prefer pop quizzes or open book exams?

Posted Saturday, March 18th, 2023 by Gregory Forman
Filed under Attorney-Client Relations, Not South Carolina Specific, Of Interest to Family Court Litigants, Of Interest to Family Law Attorneys

A sizable minority of my clients still prefer the telephone over email to get their questions answered.  I certainly understand the desire of dialogue to discuss options and consider strategies.  But for getting questions answered nothing beats writing, especially when email allows for instantaneous written communication.[i]

I no longer understand the motivation of clients who message/email a simple “call me” with no additional explanation, or who pick up the phone to get their questions answered.  Is it laziness? If so, are they aware how inefficiently they are expending their retainer?  Is it a preference for analog over digital?  If so, do they still prefer a cathode ray television? And how are they expecting to get good legal advice?  The way I liken phone versus email is the difference between a pop quiz and an open book exam—except that doesn’t fully explain the distinction.  Phone-call questions are like an oral pop quiz aimed at a professional whose livelihood is the written word.

Has any complicated legal question ever been sufficiently answered orally?  Even when I orally answer a client’s question, I follow up in writing.  The written follow up is partially defensive law practice and partially an attempt in ensure the answer is understood; it’s actually unusual when my oral instructions are accurately comprehended.  Too often, the very nature of the phone call demonstrates a shifting query that generates a shifting response.  Unless my client can clearly articulate the question (and all facts that are relevant to that question), I can’t generate a useful response.

It has gotten to the point that I distrust the motivations of clients who demand oral responses to their questions.  Is the goal to later create a dispute with me when they do something against my advice? Is the goal to trip me up on a semantic subtly that I don’t catch in our conversation so that they can do what they please rather what is best for their case?  With clients and colleague who seek my advice, I often demand they frame the question in writing before we discuss it; even on urgent matters having a few minutes to understand and think about the issue generates much better advice.

The best legal advice comes from questions that are clear and easily understood.  Don’t make your attorney take an oral pop quiz when there’s the option of a written open book exam.

[i] As someone who began practice in the pre-internet age, it’s hard to convey to folks who’ve always known a digital world how much email changed the practice of law.  The ability of instantaneous written communication has been a tremendous boon. The expectation that written communication will be instantaneous has been an incredible source of stress.

One thought on Do you prefer pop quizzes or open book exams?

  1. Deborah Proveaux says:

    Educating your client seems necessary in many cases. It makes sense that when they know to provide the WHO WHAT WHEN WHERE & WHY within the message left for their attorney, the call back will most likely be an efficient use of the attorney’s time & the client’s retainer.

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