The secret to being a great attorney

By Harlan York

Editor’s note: In this excerpt from “Three Degrees of Law: Unlocking the Secrets to Happiness in the Legal Universe,” attorney Harlan York offers advice that could help professionals of all kinds find career success and satisfaction. From encouraging mentorship to emphasizing the importance of relationship building, York aims to help everyone improve in his or her job through his 120-page book. 

Find the complete reprint along with more articles for practicing attorneys in the digital edition of our 2016 Lawyer & Statesman


Long before most attorneys had begun to study how to cope with the changes in our economy, I began working with the notion that all clients, big and small, really want one thing: immediate response.

While this may seem like a simple solution, the fact is that most attorneys believe they are too busy to answer calls and emails quickly. This is not true. It is simply a matter of putting client communication before more frivolous matters.

I have always worked with the 24-hour rule. By this I mean, if the client calls or emails, do your best to reply within 24 hours. This includes weekends and holidays. Yes, I’m serious. 

Of course, developments in technology have made it much easier to accomplish this task. Between my cell, tablet, laptop and desktop, I have no trouble staying on top of all messages. It takes no time at all to answer questions.

What is far more time-consuming is procrastinating with the belief that you will get to it tomorrow. All that tomorrow brings is more messages.

Now, you may be sitting there saying, “I already do this.”

Good. But if you do not, start now.

Still, there is more to it than merely replying to clients. You must truly care. Since day one, I have made a habit of returning client phone calls on the same day. This encompasses Monday through Friday and sometimes weekends as well. I estimate that I have missed a same-day callback in less than 1 percent of all cases in my career.

I reply to emails in as little as one minute, and normally within a few hours. This includes weekends, nights and most holidays. One client emailed me 127 times since we opened his case. I have sent 97 reply emails. I even text with clients when necessary. I have made it my mission to be sure my clients never feel ignored.

All we can offer the public is service. If you can’t count on service from your lawyers, on what can you count?

But it is not just the clients — it’s also expert witnesses. 

The other day, I received a call from a top psychologist on whom I have relied for expert opinions in various cases. 

She commented on how so many attorneys weren’t able to pick up the phone for her, despite their requests for her help. 

As usual, I could only shrug.

What can you say after you hear these things so frequently?

This professional is dedicating days on her calendar to appear in court, and lawyers do not even confirm whether they still need her help.

It’s inexcusable. They are messing with her calendar, showing her disrespect and losing a valuable resource for future cases. 

There are more problems in this: What if the client loses the case because of the lawyer’s inability to secure the witness? That’s a major blunder that can lead to a career downfall.

Everyone is entitled to callbacks. I recall when I purchased a condo early in my career. It was my first property, and as newlyweds, my wife and I chose a friend, Mike, to do the closing.

I did not expect special treatment, but by now I am sure you know where this story is going.

Sure enough, whenever we had a question, Mike wouldn’t call us back.

The guy not only lost a valuable source of referrals by neglecting us but also lost a friend. I never requested a discount, and in fact told Mike to bill us as he would any other client.

However, I remember really losing my patience with him because he seemed frustrated with us when we asked normal questions that any first-time homebuyers would. I’ve said it before and will say it again: Failure to respond equals poor lawyering, which results in loss of cases, loss of clients and loss of referrals.

You’re serious?

Now, you may be sitting there shaking your head. “What are you talking about? If I read 100 emails from every client and send 100 replies, I will never get any work done.”

First of all, the emails count as part of work. Moreover, a client who sends 100 emails is the exception. Most of the time, you can manage expectations easily with less communication. The majority of clients are not so high maintenance.

Ultimately, what I am talking about is good service.

A friend was selling her house and located a neighborhood attorney. Let’s call him Jones. He quoted her a fee. She retained him. Once hired, Jones ignored her phone calls, so she called me. “I don’t understand,” my friend commented. “All I want is an answer to a few questions.”

I replied that I did not know Jones, but I offered to contact him. 

My friend insisted that I need not take time from my schedule.

She said, “I will try one more time and ask his secretary to explain why he hasn’t returned my calls. I’ve been patient, but it’s been two weeks, and I left three messages.” 

I hung up, reminding her once more that I was more than happy to reach out to Jones. Two weeks? Three calls? In my opinion, this treatment was just wrong, especially given my personal obsession with customer service for my immigration clients.

The following week, I heard from my friend. “Well, Mr. Jones finally got back to me.”

“And?” I inquired. “Did he tell you what you needed to know?”

“Not exactly,” she answered. “He was quite upset. He said all of my calls were a waste of his time and I’m lucky he doesn’t bill me extra.”

Now, my friend is a calm sort, a little timid even. I couldn’t begin to understand why her lawyer would be angry with her. 

This Jones had not only upset his client but also failed in his ethical duty to respond. He ignored and then insulted her.

He lost an opportunity to impress her with good service.

This attorney also cost himself dozens of potential new cases.

If I am nice to our clients, not only am I doing my job but also I am letting them know that I appreciate their business. What is the likelihood that they will recommend me to family and neighbors? In my experience, it’s very likely.

All I could tell my friend was, “Sorry that you had such a bad experience. Next time, please ask me if I can give you the name of a colleague who will do the job right.”

Doing the job right begins and ends with client service.

Find the complete reprint along with more articles for practicing attorneys in the digital edition of our 2016 Lawyer & Statesman 

The first attorney in New Jersey  to win the title of Immigration Lawyer of the Year from Best Lawyers, Harlan York was immigration chair of the New Jersey State Bar Association and co-chair of the New York State Bar Association Commercial and Federal Litigation Section’s Committee on Immigration.  He also served on the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s National Practice Management Committee. His book, “Three Degrees of Law,” was an Amazon best-seller.  A frequent lecturer on immigration law and the practice of law,  York heads his five-attorney firm, Harlan York & Associates, in Newark, N.J.  The firm’s clients include individuals and entities all over the world.