Friday, 27 July 2012

Ten Rules for Telephone Conferences with Experts

They reduce costs and delay and are now almost the norm, but there are pitfalls in having conferences where the experts "attend" by telephone.  Here are ten rules to help them run more smoothly.

1.            Arrange to call the experts at least  15 minutes after the start of the conference.

Conferences rarely start bang on time. Coffee and tea are served. Everyone settles down. Counsel breaks the ice by talking about the weather and then introduces the conference. The client has something they want to get off their chest at the outset. Fifteen minutes have passed. If the expert was expecting a call at ten o'clock and it is now quarter past, they are getting nervous that they have been forgotten. They are busy people and not used to being kept waiting. At twenty past they are cross and calling the solicitor's office.  So, solicitors should arrange to meet counsel and the client about fifteen minutes before the time set for the conference call.

2.            Inform the expert who is present in the room with you.

And, if necessary, keep reminding them throughout the conference. Even then I wonder whether experts sometimes forget that the client is present with the lawyers and listening to the discussions. In one conference I asked the expert microbiologist over the telephone what  dosage of antibiotic  ought to have been administered to my, admittedly overweight, client who was sitting next to me. "Well,", replied the expert, "We are dealing here with what is basically a whale".

3.            Landlines are preferable to mobile phones.

Not only is the connection generally worse on a mobile, but mobiles allow experts to take part in the conference in less than ideal circumstances, usually involving their cars. I have had experts say, "I am stuck in a traffic jam but I will be fine - carry on", and "I have just pulled into a lay-by. Hang on, I'll get the papers from the boot."

4.            Avoid calls to experts when they are abroad.

Many is the time when I have had a conference by telephone with an expert who has been abroad on a conference or on holiday. They rarely run smoothly. If your expert is going to be abroad they are unlikely to be taking three ring-binders of medical records with them, so consider providing records and other documents in electronic form.

5.            Don't let experts' patients interrupt the conference.

I am not suggesting that experts should ignore emergency calls and carry on the conference regardless, but rather that it is best to avoid timing the conference for midway through an operating list or out-patient clinic. 

The trouble with "office time" conference calls is that experts' patients may be within reach. I recall one conference which had been arranged to take place with the surgical expert when he was between patients on his theatre list. I had the distinct impression that he was operating with the phone tucked under his chin.

6.            Try to avoid calling the expert when they are at home.

At least an expert in the office is more likely to be in "work mode". When they take the call at home, there are countless distractions which may interrupt the conference. Dogs are a particular and common menace and seem to choose to bark loudly at vital moments. 

I remember one expert becoming increasingly angry with his noisy retriever: "Rufus! Shut up!". Other potential distractions include children, "Daddy, can I watch a video" and visitors, "Sorry, Mr Poole, I will just have to let in the decorator. One minute."  The client may think that the expert is not paying full attention when he hears him shouting, "I left the keys in the kitchen drawer, darling".

7.            Ensure there is a proper "hands free" telephone and someone present who knows how to use it.

The conference sets which look like small UFO's are best.  Conventional sets often give only a very faint line when using the hands free function. I have conducted several conferences by shouting. The one that stays with me involved a client who had Peyronie's disease. The expert could not hear what the client's wife was saying, so I had to shout it down the line: "She says her husband's penis was bent at an angle of nearly 90 degrees". Not everyone is efficient or even capable of  operating the telephones for conference calls. "Now, I think I can remember how to do this", is always a worrying beginning to the conference. Technophobes - know your limits. Someone present needs to know exactly how to operate the system. An alternative, at additional cost, is to use a service such as BT conference calls: "Press *0 for assistance".

8.            Remind the expert to have the records and reports available for the conference.

Too many experts participate in telephone conferences without having the records and other documents in front of them. I recently had to dictate the entries from an observation chart over the telephone.

9.            Beware the Disappearing Expert

Sometimes the line just fails and an expert is cut off. The problem comes when you don't know that has happened. On one  occasion I was midway through a question to the expert when the receptionist came in the room with a message to call him because he had been disconnected. I had, not for the first time, been speaking to myself.

10.          Check the Conference Note

It is good practice to send the experts a note of the conference, but check what you send them.  They may not appreciate seeing what was said about them or their opinions after they had finished the call.  I know of one telephone conference where, immediately after the call to the expert had ended, counsel said to the client that he thought the expert was "completely batty". The diligent trainee solicitor duly noted the comment and the full conference note was sent to the expert. It may be no co-incidence that the same firm now produces two notes: one of the conference with the experts and a second note of the further discussions between counsel, solicitor and client.

I have no doubt that the physical distance between expert and client at a telephone conference makes it less awkward for the expert to give unsupportive opinions. You may think that to be an advantage or disadvantage of telephone conferences, but from the  point of view of client care, it is sometimes better to allow them to see an unsupportive expert face to face. However the bean-counters would not approve. So telephone conferences will continue, together with video or even skyping, and there will be plenty more pitfalls ahead. Good luck!

1 comment:

  1. The Peyronie's disease anecdote made me laugh out loud