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What To Do If Your Lawyer Isn't Returning Your Phone Calls

Updated on March 30, 2008

I have read many times that the number one complaint filed with the Florida Bar concerns attorneys not returning the phone calls of their clients. I assume if this is the number one complaint filed with the Bar, it means that it happens a lot and it happens with lawyers in all kinds of firms, large and small. Being an attorney myself, I felt I might be in a position to take a close look at this phenomenon and offer some advice to clients who find themselves in the frustrating position of needing to speak with their attorney and not being able to contact them for whatever reason. To do this properly, I must first differentiate the attorney who is busy and cannot return phone calls, from the attorney who is negligent and doesn’t return phone calls but could.

An attorney’s day can take many forms. It can be an office day, a court day, a deposition day, a mediation day, a combination of these days all in one, or about one hundred other variations on this theme. Being an attorney requires that one be able to multi-task and work a calendar with precision to ensure everything is getting done and is coordinated with the many other parties who are involved in each part of the process of managing the legal affairs of others. I don’t know many attorneys who work less than 10 hours a day. Most carry PDAs (electronic calendar and email gadgets) and work on the road in between appointments and on weekends.

That being said, it is possible to return phone calls in a reasonable time. Admittedly, there is such a thing as over-scheduling an attorney’s day and there is also such a thing as an attorney taking on more work than he or she can handle. Attorneys are human after all, and not all of them are the most efficient time managers.

So what is a “reasonable” time within which a client should expect a return phone call from his or her attorney? The short answer is, “It depends,” because a reasonable time is different depending on what the attorney has on the agenda, i.e., if an attorney is in trial or preparing for a trial, in heavy discovery on a case, on vacation, or just working on her or his typical caseload at the office.

If an attorney is in trial, a client should expect that the attorney will return calls a day or two after the trial has concluded. Trials take up all of an attorney’s and her or his staff’s time. There are so many details and items of evidence and issues that must be managed and resolved before, during, and immediately after the trial, it’s nearly impossible to manage anything else without damaging the case at hand; however, if it is a trial lasting longer than three or four days, or if the call is a true emergency, the client should expect that the attorney can return a quick phone call, send a short email to the client, or have a staff person call and act as intermediary between the client and attorney. If the client has one of these true emergencies, the attorney should be able to have a representative (another attorney or staff person) step in and handle the issue as best they can until the attorney is free to take over.

If an attorney is not in trial or other complicated preparation phase of a case, a client should be able to expect a return phone call within 48 hours of leaving a message. This is a general rule of thumb, and my personal opinion, not a formal rule of which I am aware. At Cowden Law, our rule is to return phone calls the same day, even if they occur in the evening or on weekends. If the attorney at Cowden Law is unable to return the phone call the same day, a staff member will return the call and do his or her best to take care of the client and coordinate with the attorney as needed and possible.

Some firms have a policy of screening all calls through staff to ensure the attorney is left alone to handle all the cases they have, without the interruptions caused by client phone calls. I have heard that a lot of clients don’t like this policy because they want to speak directly with their attorneys when they have questions or problems. The firms who have these policies generally institute them because they work with a lot of contingency fee or fixed fee cases, and those clients tend to call much more frequently with non-critical issues than hourly fee clients do. For my explanation as to this phenomenon, check out my earlier article on this web site “The Difference Between Fees and Costs.”

Of course, there are always bad apples out there, and the law field is no exception. There are lawyers who neglect their clients and their cases and who have no good reason for not returning phone calls in a reasonable time. I read about these attorneys in my Bar Journal newspaper, where they list all the attorneys who have been disciplined by the Florida Bar for not adequately managing their client’s cases or their clients themselves.

Whether you are the client of a very busy attorney or an attorney who is being negligent, I can offer you some advice for getting return phone calls in a reasonable amount of time. The first step is to realize that your attorney may be involved in one of the situations that I mentioned earlier that makes it impossible for her or him to return your phone call in the same day. Feel free to ask the staff member who answers the phone if the attorney is in trial or in some other involved process that precludes the attorney from handling your issue. You may want to consider leaving a type of deadline for the attorney to call you back in a non-emergency situation, wording it for example as,

“This is [insert your name]. I’m calling you because [insert your reason]. This is not an emergency, so if you are busy, I won’t expect a call back until [insert a day and date 4 days from today]. If you are not busy, of course I’d appreciate a call back as soon as possible. Thanks very much.”

If you feel your situation is more urgent, a message might sound something more like,

“This is [insert your name]. I’m calling you because I have a very urgent situation that needs your immediate attention. It is [insert your reason]. This is what I consider an emergency situation, so I would appreciate a call back from either you or a staff person by [insert what you consider a reasonable time]. Thanks very much for your understanding. I apologize for any inconvenience this may cause you.” [Note: This suggested phraseology is a nod to my personal credo: “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar”. The apology shows you respect your attorney’s and the staff’s time.]

The key to using the “emergency situation call” is to never use it unless it’s absolutely necessary. If a client calls with them all the time, he is going to be just like the Boy Who Cried Wolf, and will suffer the same consequences as the boy in that fable. It’s only human nature to treat a person with the same respect that person has given others. Calling with frequent false emergencies is a sign to some attorneys that the client does not respect his or the staff’s time. It will also have some bearing on what the “reasonable time” is within which a call must be returned to this client; the more a client Cries Wolf, the more an attorney feels he is justified in returning that client’s calls within a longer period of time. While it may not be fair in the client’s mind, it is human nature to react this way.

A last resort, for the client who has used the above techniques to no avail, is to send a letter. To make it have the most force, sending it via registered mail is certain to get the attorney’s attention. Again, I must emphasize that this is a last resort method, and should only be used once. If it doesn’t work, it’s probably time to find a new lawyer who has more time or interest in handling your case. At Cowden Law, we have inherited many cases from attorneys who didn’t return phone calls of their clients. We emphasize what we call “VIP Service” with our clients, and it’s appealing to our clients that we focus so much of our attention on timely and convenient communications with them. Talk to your lawyer before you hire her or him to find out what their policies are with regard to client communications. Do they use email? If they do, you might have found an easier avenue to use to contact them. Do they use instant messaging? If you both do, and your attorney is comfortable with this platform, you have another means to use for communication. Just remember, you want to also talk to your attorney about maintaining confidentiality in your case, because not all of these avenues of communication may be appropriate for your situation.

The key to effective and timely communications between attorney and client is to have a dialog about the issue at the beginning of the relationship. Attorneys should set expectations for their clients in their first meeting together so the client knows what to expect. Clients need to be aware of and understanding of the attorney’s responsibilities to all of their clients and firm itself, so they don’t have unrealistic expectations of what an attorney can and can’t do to communicate with them. Lastly, if clients find they are unhappy with how promptly their attorney is returning calls, they should take the bull by the horns and deal with it. Use the techniques outlined in this article, and as a last resort, send the registered letter mentioned. Sometimes, finding a new lawyer is the only option left, but it can turn out to be a very good option for many who find their new lawyer is a good communicator.

To find out more about Cowden Law’s VIP Service, browse our web site and read the articles on various subjects. They’ve all been written for the non-lawyer and hopefully you’ll find them interesting and informative.


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      simon 2 years ago

      Your articles make whole sense of every topic.

    • profile image

      rhill2901 4 years ago

      Your justification for attorney behavior is poor. All of your excuses can be applied to anyone in any job. You bigtime lawyer, next time you at a restaurant and you don't get service, wait 2 or 3 days and if its an emergency, expect communication sometime later that day. We can't be responsible for your food being cold because you should of ate it when it was hot. I can be just as stupid. Stop taking on more clients than you can handle. Your clients are your job and they are your boss. Start treating them like they are. Attorneys pretend they have all kinds of free time and after you pay them, they disappear. They work out divorce deals behind your back and tell you, you are uncooperative when you don't agree with what "they" set up. Lawyers are crooks and there should be laws to prevent them from doing what they are doing. If a client is neglected, it should be an automatic refund and the client should be encouraged to seek damages that the attorney caused...

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      Dee 5 years ago

      My attorney never responds to emails/voicemails, etc. After mediation we were scheduled to go to court to present signed agreement and conclude the divorce. She STOOD ME UP! ourt tried calling as did I . no response. So trial is coming in August and haven't heard from her since May. No response...even just sent a certified letter. It blows my mind!

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      Queen 6 years ago

      I hired a lawyer in 5 months ago never return my phone calls until I told his son which was the paralegal I was fed up and needed to speak to him or I was coming into the office. After my meeting with the attorney I express my concerns regarding the doctor I was seeing with still no help from my attorney, instead I got the abandone treatment from the staff and the attorney, calls were ignored and things got worse and I found another attorney and have been given the run around, this office is 3 hours aways and the attorney will not call back. I should of question the attorney before ever signing any forms because now I have two bad lawyers who is doing the same thing. I know that he is busy, but if I hire a lawyer to take my case he or she should have the decency to at least make sure I get the help I need that is the whole reason for hiring a lawyer is for their professional help this is horrible! I guess he above the law.

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      Another negligent 6 years ago

      For the last three months i am trying to contact my attorney by email, text phone calls and he is refusing answer my calls. if you get another attorney will you get you money back that you pay him. if you attorney dont schedule a hearing for my case and my case get dismiss because he never contact the court can i sued him..

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      Betty Stewart 6 years ago

      I am going bankrupt just waiting for the lawyer to call me back. It isn't fair. We have been at this divorce for almost two years and I am losing my home and have no more money. We don't even have to go to court, just the courthouse. This is not right, if I call them his wife just says this is costing you. Well they are going to throw my stuff out in the yard and my son and I out in the streets. I have no money to move. My husband has it made with my lawyer. He didn't even get one. If you need help do not call Dominque. Angleton Tx. It has cost plenty.

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      patricia 6 years ago

      I too haven't heard from my lawyer in over 8 months. I paid him a retainer of $1500 and all he's done to my knowledge (since he won't communicate an update to me) is request my employee file, send me a letter letting me know that I have a case, in fact in his words 3 or 4 claims with deadlines.I met with him once after begging to hear from him, which was a waste of time because all he told me was that I'd hear from him and I needn't come back to his office.I haven't heard from him, his assistants only tell me when I call that they will give him the message and that someone will get back to me. But to this date not a word. What should I do? Should I get another lawyer, I have no money, I feel like I'm chained to the bottom of the ocean.

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      Kathleen 6 years ago

      Have a terrific lawyer. He is wonderful in court, and not a sleazeball. However, I met with him 3 mos ago to put together a simple document to be filed in court. I have spoken to him two times. Both times to schedule a "conference call" that was then cancelled. I have sent emails, msgs to PT secretary with no response. Filing date is tomorrow and isn't going to happen. I have been polite and have never had a nasty tone. I was told to get aggressive, but what now? Ex spouse

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      momof3 6 years ago

      My attorney refuses to return calls or email for Month. I found out the ex sent decovery that will default in a few days. My attorney never notified me of the Discovery received or even filed answer to exes motion, or counter motion to preserve child suppor, or discovery for me. just one notice of appearance. I am concered about being santioned by the court and loss of retroactive Child support for my attorneys failure to do Anything. He is paid of course.

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      eddie 6 years ago

      Real estate agents and attorneys are the lowest forms of life. They talk to you when they want your business, then they ignore you. If I treated my clients like they do, I whouldn't have any. I paid an attorney a retainer...being pro-active knowing something would come response in over a week. WTF??? Had to fire my divorce attorney...lame and he hit on me!

      Frustrated with people we pay alot of money to and they have no respect or concience about how they treat people.

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      al 7 years ago

      I hired this attorney about a year ago. He filed my chapter 13 in June 2010 and it was dismissed for not having the paperwork on time. He re filed a month later and I went to court. Started paying the trustee and then he was suppose to go to another hearing and that led up that he did not submit a form correctly. That one got discharge and I kept sending him the payments to the trustee. After weeks trying to get a hold of him and having moved his office without notifying me I found and contacted him. He said we had to re file and that he knows what he needs to get done right this time. Well I completed some courses like the first time he asked me. I sent him emails and left messages at his office and has not responded. He even changed his cell phone number. His last reply was on March 7th and today is March 22nd. What should I do??? I am in California.

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      TL 7 years ago

      I've been waiting for a call back from my attorney too. I left 2 voicemails already. I know he's probably busy but still. Plus i think he's not calling back becuz the case is about 5years old and i'm not paying him out of my pocket. This attorney was assigned to me from the commonwealth of VA. You would think that he would want a heads up on the case coming up. It's coming up next week so we'll see what happens. I guess i'll see him on my court date!

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      wendy 7 years ago


      you should definitely file a complaint against your attorney to the state bar.

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      Cheryl Harris 7 years ago

      I paid an attorney $ 2,000.00 to take my case and he seldom calls and when he does he has no answers. He refuses to tell me if he obtained anything even after repeatedly asking. I answered his questions immediately. Just last week time I refused to answer his one e mails with questions hisquestions and he. withdrew from the case He has only sent me one letter at my request which still he refused to answer any of my questions, obtain as far as I know any documentation I have asked for to defend myself. Then he started insulting me over few typographical errors I made doing his job. I NEVER once pointed out his. The E mail he sent me that tells me what the other side is planning to do to me and not a thing about what he is going to do! A deposition scheduled on October 27, 2010 and he has now quit because I finally stopped answering his questions. One time! I have absolutely nothing from him documentation wise or otherwise, and he refuses to obtain the documents I need to protect myself during this deposition. Obviously I can't show up with no representation to this deposition. He threated me saying that he is going to watch and see who I hire next so he can muddy the water and sue me for any mention of malpractice and tell lies about me to any new council. What can I do? I live in North Carolina and the case is in New Orleans. Can you help me?

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      KellySoCal7 7 years ago

      Service is Expected!!! Its sickens me every time somebody tries to justify why an attorney doesn't return your calls. Poor thing he is busy, his cat died, someone run him over: I don't care!!! Even on the death bed he is got to perform his duties or return me my money. You can't be nice to your clients before they pay in full and then turn around and show them your real face(for most attorneys its the part they sitting on). All you do by disrespecting you clients is aggravating them. But here is the thing,even a smallest person can make a big stink that will cost you your reputation and career. I suggests thinking twice before deciding to treat your clients like dirt.

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      M. Varn Chandola 7 years ago

      Concerning an attorney's failure to return a client's call, please feel free to read my article, "Does Your Attorney Return Your Calls?".

      M. Varn Chandola

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      Gregg C. 7 years ago

      An attorneys business should be like any other business. Service is EXPECTED. I understand that sometimes they are in trial and have a busy work load. Who doesn't have a busy work load? Attorneys are not the only ones busy.

      Honestly there is no excuse for not returning a call within 48 hours. Even if an assistant calls to say that the attorney has your message and will call as soon as possible. This is acceptable. But for someone like myself, who has waited several weeks, it is a poor reflection on the attorney and the profession.

      Like they said in the movie in Philadelphia. What do you call an attorney chained to the bottom of the ocean?

      A good start. My sentiments exactly.

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      BARBIELAWYER 7 years ago

      These days, if a client would like an update you can simply email the attorney. Additionally, most lawyers charge by the hour. Is the client willing to pay for phone calls? If you really want your attorney to speak with you on the phone ask him how much for his extra time and pay him. Check your retainer to see if phone calls are billed and pay him. It's as simply as that.

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      Cowden Law 8 years ago

      You can complain to the Bar which will get you a call back, but it will also result in you losing that attorney's services. That might be a good thing though.

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      Nei Turner 8 years ago

      thank you for you input from a lawyer's perspective. I did all of the above before I found your site. My attorney called back after the certified mail, but here I am months later going through the same problem again. It has been almost 2 months and I have heard absolutely nothing from my attorney. Is this reason enough to go the bar? I don't know if you give advice, but I would truly appreciate it. Thanks.