OSB Professional Liability Fund

Communicating Effectively and Professionally

April 7, 2017
by Rachel Edwards

The legal world is changing quickly on many fronts, most notably technology. The way we communicate is greatly impacted as a result. Unfortunately, it has also highlighted a divergence among different generations of attorneys, particularly regarding the most appropriate form of communication in different contexts.

For example, some older attorneys are frustrated by the lack of phone calls and in-person communication with younger attorneys, and younger attorneys are frustrated by the expectation that they should be communicating in that manner. According to a recent survey, 75% of millennials prefer texting to talking on the phone. While this may not apply in the same way to millennials in the legal profession, it provides insight into younger generations’ perceptions of appropriate methods of communication. With all of the different mediums of communication available, it can be difficult to determine the appropriate form in each situation. In addition, applying standards of professionalism across multiple forms of communication can be challenging. Whichever method is used, the ultimate goal should be to promote the efficient and civil resolution of disputes. Below are helpful guidelines to determining the proper form of communication, as well as tips for proper language and formatting:

Email

Email now comprises the majority of communication in the legal profession. Yet it can be isolating and provide a false sense of privacy. Avoid email if you are trying to establish or strengthen a relationship, or if the conversation could be misconstrued as to tone and context, such as emotionally charged situations. Draft the email as you would a formal letter. Avoid sarcasm, exaggeration, threats and personal attacks. Accurately state the facts, and proofread for grammar, spelling, and typographical errors. Begin with a formal greeting such as “Dear” or “Hello,” and close with a professional signature such as “Sincerely” or “Thank you.” Also be aware of the information located below your email signature and keep it to a minimum, such as quotes and firm logos sent as attachments. Always double check to be sure you are sending the email to the right person(s).

Letter

A letter may seem to be a more formal method of communication in many professions, but in the legal profession it is still appropriate in many circumstances. Examples of these instances include letters accompanying service of legal paperwork, engagement and disengagement letters, and letters of understanding after a telephone conversation. The PLF recommends that attorneys put important communications in writing to avoid misunderstandings down the road, and to protect yourself if a malpractice claim arises. So even if an in-person or telephone conversation is appropriate, we recommend that you put those communications into writing afterwards. As with an email, be sure to follow guidelines regarding tone, spelling, grammar, and formatting.

Phone

If it becomes clear that the tone of a conversation could be misconstrued in an email or letter, call the person to avoid potential misunderstandings. It may be advisable to put the phone call on the calendar. Some people may feel that calling without prior notice makes it seem as though the caller is prioritizing their needs over the needs of the person they are calling. Scheduling the call also allows the parties to adequately prepare for the phone call. Consider making regular phone calls to your clients, whether to provide them with an update about their case, or simply to schedule a monthly call regardless of any updates. Regular communication can help clients feel that you are engaged and care about them and their situation. It may also be helpful to call opposing counsel at the outset of a case, especially if you have never met or spoken to him or her beforehand. An initial phone conversation can set the stage for healthy and fruitful negotiations.

In Person

With our busy schedules, it can be difficult to find time to meet with others in person. Yet in some situations it may benefit all parties involved to discuss the issues face to face. In-person meetings may be beneficial at the outset of a case to allow for a meeting of the minds. Oftentimes cases drag on for months before mediation is scheduled, so you may want to establish an in-person relationship before then. Outside the context of practicing law, meeting in person can be beneficial for mentoring and networking purposes.

Text

Depending on the type of relationship you have with the person you are texting, it is usually more appropriate for brief and informational communications, such as verifying appointments or providing an address. Avoid sending texts that contain updates or information about a client’s case, such as a judge’s ruling or the status of a settlement negotiation. Those conversations are better suited for an email, letter, phone call, or in-person meeting.

Whichever form of communication you choose, remember to maintain civility. The practice of law can be emotional at times, especially in certain areas of practice. If you receive an aggressive email or other form of communication, it can be tempting to respond immediately while still in the midst of the emotions. Humans are wired to automatically respond to a threat, whether the threat is real or perceived, in a way that no longer allows us to engage in complex reasoning. As a result, we become defensive and allow the emotions to take over, while the facts of the situation and the ultimate goal of the communication fall to the wayside. Before responding, step back for a moment. Calm your emotions before drafting a response. Psychologists have found that the key to an appropriate response is to be an active listener, be brief, and use neutral language.

While it may be difficult to maintain composure, civility towards others is paramount. Acting in a professional manner will allow you to be a more effective advocate for your client.