Communication etiquette as a young lawyer—Responsiveness

Since law school we have been trained to speak and act in a way that will persuade others to do what we want them to do. We want the judge or jury to find for our client. We want opposing counsel to cooperate with us in moving a case. We want our clients to work with us in accomplishing our mutual goals. Maybe we want to get hired by a client in the first place. Sometimes the vehicle we use to respond, or the amount of time we take to do so, can be as important as what we actually say. Developing a good sense of how to best reply to different communications will help you in your practice in a number of ways. Here are a few rules and general guidelines that should help.

Don’t Respond to a Phone Call by E-Mail (or another less personal form of communication)

How would you feel if you left a voicemail for a lawyer and they e-mailed you back? You would probably wonder whether your call was important. If you had a difficult question for the lawyer and they answered you through a text message, you might question their professionalism or whether they even know how to address your question. A client might send 200 text messages a day, but chances are they will expect a heightened level of professionalism from their lawyer. Don’t let anyone question you. Give them your time and full attention. Give them a call. Have a real conversation.

There are exceptions to the rule. If you receive a voicemail on your iPhone while you’re out of the office and you’d like to respond immediately but you’re on a crowded bus, maybe you can send a quick e-mail to briefly address your client’s questions or concerns. Absent special circumstances, though, we should always give the other person the professional courtesy of calling them back over the phone.

Always Respond as Soon as You Reasonably Can

I try to respond to all communications as soon as possible, preferably within a few hours, even e-mails. If more than 24 hours pass without a response, many people will begin to wonder whether you received their message, or whether their message is important to you at all. Too many unanswered messages can quickly build your reputation as a flaky non-responder.

If You Won’t Be Available, Let Them Know

My practice allows me to be available to communicate with clients most of the time. Maybe you’re in court all day and only available over the phone for two hours in the afternoon. That’s okay, but let everyone know that. Make sure your receptionist knows you have court in the morning and a lunch meeting with a client. Record a custom voicemail greeting that tells callers their call is important to you, informs them of the exact times you will be unavailable, and lets them know you will respond as soon as you can. Draft an away message on your e-mail account. The one day you forget to do this could be the day you ruin your reputation with a judge or lose out on a potential new client.

If You’re Waiting for Something to Happen Before You Can Give an Answer, Let Them Know

A client sends you an e-mail asking how to best draft a non-compete clause in an employment contract. It’s a complicated issue you haven’t come across before and you want to run the question by a partner before answering, but the partner won’t be back in the office until tomorrow afternoon. Thank the client for his e-mail. Tell him you’re going to review the issue with a partner and get back to him tomorrow afternoon. He will appreciate your acknowledgement and know that you’re on top of it.

The Golden Rule of Communication

This is usually pretty simple. Ask yourself how you would want to be treated. Would you be irritated if you left a message for your lawyer asking for a status of your case and he took four days to get back to you? If you were paying your lawyer by the hour to defend you and she sent you a three-sentence e-mail from her smartphone with two typos, might you question her competency? If you tried contacting your attorney several times and could only get through to an assistant, would you feel like you’re receiving the service you deserve?

You get the idea. Sometimes we can be so overwhelmed trying to accomplish everything we need to in our workday that we can let the smaller details go unattended. The digital age of distractions has made it easier than ever to let our attention wander to the unimportant. No matter what mode of communication we use to contact our clients, other lawyers, and colleagues, at the end of the day we’re all just people who want to be ensured our needs are being taken care of. In the legal arena, almost everyone we deal with in the course of the day is trying to solve a problem or avoid a problem. Consistently showing everyone you encounter that you are working to address their problems will go a long way towards establishing a solid professional reputation as a young attorney.

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October 2015Volume 60Number 2PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)