Posted on: 3/13/2012
Dina M. Cox, Janelle P. Kilies
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Technology has brought forth a revolutionary transformation in the way we communicate with each other. Unfortunately, like the epochal story of the Tower of Babel, where sudden changes in man's ability to communicate created havoc, it could be argued that new-age technologies have created similar results. As we are faced with increasingly diverse methods of communication, it becomes imperative to understand the impacts and implications of these new technologies on the world of communication, especially within the framework of the legal profession.
Since the inception of the World Wide Web, and more recently applications based on the "cloud," we have been inundated with an ever-growing variety of ways in which to communicate. Daily we are exposed to numerous sources of these new communications. Among the more common are e-mails, text messages, and tweets. One would be hard pressed to find a professional who is not exposed to any or all of the above forms of communication. In fact, with the proliferation of technological hardware, i.e., smart phones and think-pads, it is almost impossible to avoid the constant barrage of such communications. Although the advancement of such technologies has obvious advantages, one must be aware of the potential downfalls.
In many law offices, simple messages which used to be delivered face-to-face are now being sent through impersonal means such as email. This may effectively reduce socialization within the office, thus contributing to a weakening of bonds between associates and partners. In addition, the convenience of emails and text messages just cannot entirely replace the feeling and warmth of a person's handshake or presence. Business may be negotiated through emails, but many attorneys and clients today still want to view opposing counsel and other people involved in their case (i.e., witnesses, experts, and co-counsel) face-to-face in order to gauge how to proceed. Moreover, while it may be considered the norm with younger generations to constantly carry and check one's smart phone or other device, this behavior is often viewed as rude with older generations; it gives the impression of disinterest and inattention. Word to the wise: when you are with a partner of your firm or a client, whether at lunch or during a meeting: put the phone away! If you absolutely have to check your phone, make sure to explain the situation ahead of time.
This article outlines how each of these modes of communication can be best utilized, if at all, within a professional framework, while still enabling one to maintain their own personal touch.
If you asked an attorney in your firm how many emails they received on a daily basis, excluding all spam messages, the number could very well be shocking. In the legal world, emails are used to communicate with almost every person involved in a case. The subject matter of such emails range from significant, such as settlement negotiations to the mundane, such as changing the venue for a lunch meeting. Email has established itself as a de-facto standard of communication, as it is fast, free and convenient. This technology has made it possible for people to check and send messages 24-7, whether in the office or at home. If you asked a fellow student or associate when the last time they used the traditional postal service for anything aside from court required documentation, the response would likely be unknown.
However, there are times when sending a handwritten letter might just be more effective or appropriate than sending the standard email. For instance, you just walked out of a second-round interview with the firm of your dreams. While most law students would send an email "thank you" that same evening, an additional handwritten note could potentially be more effective in differentiating yourself from others. The fact that you have taken the time and incurred the expense to create the handwritten note will indicate that your interest is more than casual.
Additionally, let's say the handwritten "thank you" note landed you your dream job. Now it's time to capitalize on this "old school" method of communication to begin personalizing your own practice. Send handwritten notes to your significant clients and contacts when noteworthy events occur. For example, after reading the local newspaper and seeing that one of your former classmates was promoted, sending a handwritten congratulations letter delivers a message that you are personally interested in their situation. Recipients of handwritten notes often express how thoughtful and kind they found the gesture; the same effect is not elicited from an electronic communication.
Handwritten notes may be impractical for a large volume of correspondence. This is an area where new age technology shines. With the push of a single button, one is able to send correspondence to all of their contacts, if necessary. What you lose in personalization, you gain in efficiency. For example, you might want to notify your clients of the upcoming holiday hours or of a temporary change of your telephone number. Another benefit of email is the immediacy with which messages can be sent and received. Let's say you receive a settlement offer and you have 24 hours to respond. Short of a phone call, the ability to email allows instantaneous contact with your client in deciding whether to accept or reject the offer. Email will also allow you to retain a paper trail.
If you asked a law student or young associate how many text messages they received daily, you again would most likely be surprised with the number. With text messaging becoming the most prevalent way of communicating within the younger generations, one must be cautious about the appropriateness of sending texts in a professional context. Text messages can be even more immediate in regards to response time than emails, as texts are sent directly to the receiver's cellphone. It is because of this implication of immediacy that texting should be minimally used within the professional world. More importantly, the use of text messaging as a means of communication within the legal world could muddy the paper trail, as text messages are held on an outside network.
An example of a situation in which a text message would be appropriate is if you are working as a summer associate and have locked yourself out of the building and you sent a quick "can u come get me? I'm locked out" text to another summer associate. This text, while being related to your job at the firm, does not contain anything confidential, but is immediate in nature. Now, let's say you are having difficulty understanding an assignment given to you by an equity partner at the firm, texting "can u remind me of what exactly u wanted me to research the other day" would not be an appropriate text message. The lack of formality would certainly send the wrong message. Texting this question also presumes that the answer may be sent back in a text, which is presumptuous and probably inaccurate.
There has been a rapid explosion of tweeting as a mode of communication. By using a Twitter account, one is able to send short messages over the internet to their followers, tweeting about anything and everything on their mind. What differentiates tweeting from emailing or text messaging as a mode of communication is, among other things, the lack of a specific recipient. In addition, the ephemeral nature of tweeting does not lend itself in any shape or form to be a means of communication in the legal profession. Certainly, we recommend avoiding tweeting for professional purposes.
While we now have more ways of communicating with one another, it seems ironic that this has led to the impersonalization of communication. By its very nature, communication began as face-to-face. Today it takes extra effort to sift out the meaningful communication from the cacophony by which we are surrounded. By using the appropriate method of communication called for by the specific situation, whether face-to-face discussions, e-mail or a handwritten letter, hopefully one can maximize the utilization of these new technologies, while retaining his or her personal touch.
Dina M. Cox is a partner with Lewis Wagner, LLP who focuses her practice on the defense of complex litigation, including legal malpractice, drug and medical device, products liability, consumer class actions, and insurance coverage and bad faith lawsuits. Dina may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (317) 237-0500.
Janelle Kilies is currently in her final year of law school at the Indiana Robert McKinney School of Law, Indianapolis. After graduating, she will begin her legal career with the law firm of Lewis Wagner, LLP in Indianapolis, Indiana, focusing her practice on the defense of complex litigation and legal malpractice lawsuits.