The Law Firm of the Future: Improving Communication in the Legal Setting
The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. —George Bernard Shaw
Senior lawyers may recall a time when we generally connected with each other via telephone calls, the U.S. Postal Service, or face-to-face meetings. In light of the numerous communication options now available, life is no longer so simple. Most importantly, choosing the wrong platform can lead to ineffective or failed communication.
Many lawyers simply revert to their default method of communication (often influenced by their respective generation) instead of considering the advantages (and disadvantages!) of that particular method before reaching out. The following narrative illustrates the effect that a poorly thought-out (or nonexistent) communication policy can have on an individual and, ultimately, an organization as a whole.
As a fledgling attorney, Becky found that communication practices were among the things that caused her the most stress. By and large, email was the default method of communication among attorneys, regardless of whether folks were working remotely or physically in the office. In practice, communicating predominantly via email proved to be inherently anxiety-inducing for Becky. Already battling depression, she found herself consumed by negative thought patterns and often misinterpreted email communications as evidence that colleagues were upset or displeased with her work performance. Indeed, having face-to-face conversations with the full spectrum of body language, tone of voice, etc., would have greatly benefited her mental health and relationships with colleagues.
We believe that mindful communication involves not only developing solid content and style but also reflecting on the most effective means to convey a message. To ensure productive and healthy communication practices, individuals and organizations alike must be involved in this exercise on an ongoing basis. Overall, we recommend that legal entities develop a written protocol keeping in mind that communications made by your attorneys or staff reflect your culture and represent your brand to the outside world.
Starting a Conversation about Communication
As communication platforms continue to evolve, it’s more important than ever to proactively build our communication skills, including raising our awareness of how our colleagues and clients communicate most effectively. One thing the co-authors have learned from experience is to meet people where they are, not where you think they are. Make it a point to actively challenge your implicit biases surrounding communication—indeed, those assumptions are likely leading you astray.
Relying on age-based stereotypes or “business as usual” to inform our communication methods can contribute to misunderstandings and unnecessary stress. For example, while 82 percent of managers believe that Gen Z employees prefer communicating via instant message, in fact, 83 percent of Gen Z employees prefer an in-person conversation. Sound familiar from Becky’s experience?
Unless and until you communicate about communication, you won’t know others’ preferences, especially as individual preferences continue to shift due to pandemic times. According to 2022 polling data, job flexibility is a paramount business consideration as 77 percent of U.S. workers say it’s critical an employer allows flexible remote work. Further, more than half of those surveyed (56 percent) said they were likely to switch to fully remote or hybrid work for more job flexibility.
As we continue to navigate this ever-changing environment, being able to communicate openly and honestly about our wants and needs is critical for our individual and collective well-being. Although our focus here is on strengthening communication in the legal profession, the advice given here will likely resonate in your personal life as well.
It’s Time to Retire the Text Message Breakup
As standard business practices continue to morph because of the pandemic, successfully attracting and retaining top talent may hinge on leadership’s ability to communicate effectively. To this end, good business practices should include taking a proactive approach to communication, including evaluating what platform to use based on the content of the message.
Recently, Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk made headlines (again) for his hardline stance against remote work. In a leaked internal company email, Musk wrote, “Anyone who wishes to do remote work must be in the office for a minimum (and I mean *minimum*) of 40 hours per week or depart Tesla. . . . If you don’t show up, we will assume you have resigned.” Although Tesla did not respond to formal requests for comment on the policy, Musk publicly tweeted about it! When asked, “Hey Elon . . . any additional comment to people who think coming into work is an antiquated concept?” Musk replied, “They should pretend to work somewhere else.”
Despite championing innovation in many respects, Musk’s comments seem to grievously miss the mark when it comes to communicating with employees in a manner that ultimately strengthens morale. Indeed, prioritizing mindful communication in the workplace can help you avoid stressful misunderstandings, as well as actively create a culture of inclusion, respect, and appreciation—all of which are key components of preventing occupational burnout.
Communication with Clients: Setting the Stage
Communicating about communication will help you build stronger relationships not only with colleagues but also with your clients. The following suggestions are intended to help you connect more closely from the outset:
● Ask clients for their preferred method of communication. When clients are retained, ask them how they wish to be contacted and record their preference on the intake form so that all staff members can comply.
● Outline your firm’s communication process in the retainer agreement and explain it in detail to the client at the initial meeting. Transparency and creating expectations up front go a long way toward building trust and solid relationships. This is an ideal time to convey boundaries regarding availability. For example, some attorneys check email only twice a day.1 To bolster boundary-setting, consider memorializing your communication process in your retainer agreements: “I check my email Monday through Friday at 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. If your issue requires immediate attention, please call my assistant Alfredo at his direct line, and he will relay your message to me.”
● Recognize that some conversations are best conducted by phone or video. Because you will accomplish more if you’re not constantly interrupted by phone calls, encourage clients to set up a time to talk with you by first reaching out through email or text. For efficiency’s sake, set aside two times a week (such as 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays) in which you handle phone appointments already set up by clients. Likewise, if you need to have a conversation with a client, reach out by email to set up a mutually convenient time to talk. Overall, mindfully leveraging complementary communication platforms and creating standardized processes will help you minimize endless games of phone tag and improve your productivity.
Ultimately, understanding others’ communication preferences and styles can help foster healthy interactions in our workplaces as well as strengthen client services. As such, we encourage all legal practitioners to get curious about the communication methods that work best with their employees, colleagues, staff, and clients. Just ask!
Next month, we will offer tips on anxiety awareness and management.
1. You may be interested in our article “A Mindful Approach to Email” (GPSolo eReport, July 2021), which outlines mindful email practices designed to decrease miscommunication while increasing productivity and improving mental health.
Rebecca Howlett, Esq., and Cynthia Sharp, Esq., are co-founders of The Legal Burnout Solution (legalburnout.com), a community dedicated to the well-being of lawyers
Originally published in ABA GPSolo eReport, July 2022 Issue (Vol. 11, No. 11) by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.