Legal professionals are usually extremely busy people since lawyers and staff often need to handle numerous matters and emergent issues that require their immediate attention. As a result of overwork or an immediate issue that needs attention, it can sometimes be difficult for an attorney to conduct the routine tasks for which they are responsible. However, lawyers all too often forget to return emails and phone calls to other lawyers, and this can lead to inefficiencies in the management of a case. In certain instances, lawyers may intentionally refuse to respond to emails and phone calls of other lawyers, either because they do not have the time to reply or they want to handle an issue on the matter before following up. For a variety of reasons, lawyers should respond to emails and phone calls from other lawyers more often, both out of courtesy and to handle a matter in the most efficient way possible.
The primary reason why lawyers often do not return emails or phone calls is because they want to look something up or do something in order to fully comply with a request that is the basis of the phone call. It makes sense that a lawyer might want to avoid the need for multiple messages until they have all the information needed to respond to another lawyer. However, a lawyer that does not receive a reply email or phone call from another lawyer might justifiably think an attorney did not receive a message. Indeed, lawyers handle numerous files, and messages sometimes fall through the cracks, especially if an attorney is out of the office for court, depositions, or personal matters.
In such situations, it almost always makes sense to reply to the other attorney and say that you got the message and are working on a longer reply after conducting a few steps. This ensures that the other lawyer knows you received the message and are on top of the matter. I regularly send such replies to adversaries and counsel for co-defendants, and I almost always receive a thank you in reply since not enough attorneys extend this courtesy. It does not take much time to draft a simple reply, and this can have a substantial impact on building positive relationships with counterparts and moving a case forward.
Another time lawyers typically do not return other lawyers’ emails or phone calls is because they are inundated with work. Lawyers often need to triage their cases, and they sometimes pay less attention to matters that do not require an immediate reply than work that needs to go out the door in the near term. However, the longer an attorney waits to provide a reply, the less likely it is that a reply will be furnished to a counterpart. As a result, it is best practice to provide a reply as soon as possible, even if the reply is as minor as just telling the counterpart you are on top of a matter so that the message does not fall through the cracks of a representation.
Another time that attorneys do not want to reply to emails and phone calls is because they do not want to make a record of certain events. For instance, if an adversary serves papers through email, and the other attorney replies, the receiving attorney would have a hard time arguing that they did not see what was being sent if at a later time that attorney wishes to dispute they ever saw the papers. However, this is surreptitious conduct, and lawyers can handle such situations in a dignified way. If attorneys do not want to reply to an email for fear of making a record, they can always call a counterpart to discuss things off the record. As I related in a prior article, it is often better to pick up the phone to speak to adversaries anyways, and this provides an adversary the courtesy of a response.
Attorneys may also refuse to return phone calls and emails to other lawyers if there is a breakdown in the relationship between counterparts. The legal profession can be very adversarial at times, and it is not uncommon for bad blood to prevent lawyers from speaking to one another. Even if attorneys try their best to maintain cordiality in the representation, there is still the risk that positions a lawyer takes to promote the interests of a client will interfere with that lawyer’s relationship with an adversary. Nevertheless, lawyers need to try to ensure that lines of communication are impacted as little as possible by friction that occurs during the representation. This helps an attorney provide the best representation possible and have the best chance at securing a positive result for a client.
All told, lawyers are busy professionals, and too much work (and other reasons) can prevent lawyers from responding to calls or emails from other lawyers. However, to keep communication open and to avoid inefficiencies, lawyers should return emails and phone calls to other attorneys as much as possible.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.