Last week, the Regina Leader-Post published an article about convicted killer Ronald Smith’s execution date being set for January 2011 – after the execution had already been stayed. One of the reasons given for the snafu in the Montana death row case is that a district court judge failed to respond to telephone and e-mail messages notifying him of the stay by a different district court judge.

The legal dispute itself is messy, and the article makes interesting reading, but I’m focusing on a legal assistant’s alleged role in the dispute over the execution date:

Sherlock issued the stay of execution, and state lawyer Chris Tweeten was given the task of informing Larson — who was to preside over a Nov. 3 hearing to schedule Smith’s execution date — about Sherlock’s order.
“That day I placed at least three calls to Judge Larson,” Tweeten states in an affidavit filed Monday with the Montana Supreme Court.
“In each instance the call was picked up by the voice mail of Brenda Johnson, Judge Larson’s legal assistant. Her voice mail greeting suggested that the caller leave a message. It did not state that Ms. Johnson was out for the day on Nov. 1.”
Tweeten received no return call. He followed with an email message to Larson but received no reply.

The part about the legal assistant’s voice mail message not stating that she wasn’t in the office that day – or available to collect her messages that same day – really made me stop and think. I’m guilty of not always updating my alternate voice mail message to reflect that I’m not in the office, or available to check my messages. (And I’m also guilty of forgetting to change my voice mail message back to the primary greeting, confirming that I am available to check my messages.)

It’s true that I don’t work on death row cases, but I do work on matters that are important to our clients, whether it’s getting approval for emergency medical treatment, or finding out what happened to a desperately needed weekly disability check.

We don’t always know in advance when we won’t be in the office or unable to retrieve our messages, but when we do know in advance, it’s important that our voice mail message clearly indicates that status. Even if we call in sick, we have the option of asking a co-worker to update our voice mail message – or for many of us, even changing it remotely.

This news story reminds me how important it is to take the extra 60 seconds or so each day needed to verify that your office voice mail message:

  • Accurately reflects whether you are available to retrieve your messages that day;
  • Clearly states the period of time you are not able to retrieve messages; and
  • Gives callers emergency contact information if they need to speak to someone when you are not available, i.e. the names and telephone numbers of your supervising attorney and/or co-workers – and re-direction to the main office number if for some reason everyone you list is not available as well.

Whatever role you play in the legal field, your voice mail message is more important than you think. It reflects well on our professionalism, as well as our commitment to our clients, if we make sure that our voice mail message is as timely and accurate as the rest of our work.

Source: Regina Leader-Post

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