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Business of Law, Law Office Management

Mind Your Mobile Manners: Email, Phone, and Text Communication Tips

Proper business etiquette for mobile communication is elusive, but here are a few ground rules.

By Katie Burke  |  September 3, 2015

CommunicationWhen representing yourself and your clients in a professional setting, appropriate communication is imperative. This is especially true in law, a particularly formal arena.

The legal field, being adversarial by design, can test our patience. Judging colleagues by their excessively casual tones, emotional outbursts, and misdirected emails is easy. It’s awareness of our own behavior that can be harder to access. Below are some tips to keep you thoughtful about how others receive your words and conduct, especially when you’re on the go.

Take the call.

We all know how it feels to hear that someone with a bad personality is on hold, waiting to speak with us. Wanting to avoid such calls is natural, but unless that person is on your “phone call ban” list for habitually bad behavior, it’s usually a good idea to take the call.

It is hard to account for tone on all non-vocal forms of communication. Meeting someone voice to voice gives you information that will help you determine whether and how you will resolve challenges in your cases. So as a preliminary matter, whether you are responding to a call or thinking about placing one, pick up the phone.

Once you’ve reached someone by phone or picked up an incoming call,

  • Listen. Short of blatantly violent communications, actively listening to others can only benefit all involved. Both our formal and on-the-job legal training teaches us to persuade others to come to our side. As any worthy book on negotiating will tell you, you’re far more likely to secure agreements when you understand all sides of the discussion, and allow everyone to voice their concerns and goals. When you do speak, confirm that you understand what the other person has said.
  • Pipe down. Speak assertively and with confidence, but don’t be that attorney who blusters and turns up the volume when she or he wants something. Just as you’ll gain more ground for agreement by listening to others, others are more likely to listen when you speak softly than when you yell.
  • Be cordial. Strive to be the attorney who is pleasant to talk to. When you are on the line, the receiving party relaxes and says, “Put her through.” Being any other way just creates new problems and makes existing ones worse.
  • Keep an eye on the clock. Few people, if any, like long conversations that cannot happen in person. Lengthy phone calls can sometimes be productive, but in the legal context, the “time is money” axiom is literal, true, and important to clients who pay for your time by the hour—or to you, if your payment is not based on time spent.
  • Be aware of your surroundings. Always keep attorney-client privilege in mind. When speaking to anyone by phone, think about who is within your range or that of the person on the other end.

Finally, return calls promptly. Thirteen years ago, when I was new to practice, I developed a twenty-four hour rule. While I almost never go a full day without responding, I allow myself that amount of time when necessary. On a day when I am at my desk, I try to respond within the hour.

Our fast-paced world has raised general expectations about response time across all forms of communication. Whatever your personal rule, communicate it early in your relationships, and be consistent, so those trying to reach you know what to expect.

Consider each field of an email.

“To” Field

No one likes receiving emails they don’t need. Before blasting everyone with a particular email, consider whether each person needs the communication, whether anyone has expressed a preference for being included or excluded, and where everyone is in proximity with each other.

One of my personal frustrations is when people keep me copied on email exchanges after I’ve asked to be removed. After the subtle “I’ll leave you two to take it from here” is ignored, I’m usually far more direct, explicitly asking to be removed from the communication. It works about half the time.

Before hitting “reply all,” keep in mind that someone else’s judgment about who needs to be in the loop may differ from your assessment. Trust yourself, removing and/or adding recipients as you see fit. When you add a new person to any exchange, identify that person in the body of your email, telling all recipients that you’ve just added this new person to the exchange. That way, you will hopefully preempt any mention of this new person that she or he was not meant to see.

Subject Line and Body

As obvious as it may sound, it bears reminding that no one should write anything in an email that is not meant for distribution. While attorney-client privilege theoretically keeps all communications between clients safe from public consumption, accidents and ethical breaches happen. And though collegial relationships are built on trust that others will not share sensitive emails without permission, it happens all the time. Keep that in mind as you type.

Emojis and emoticons are arguably cute under certain circumstances. Professional communications are no such context. Don’t use them. The same is true for slang and abbreviations not generally accepted in the legal community. For example, you should not use “u” as shorthand for “you.”

Bear in mind that using all caps is the email equivalent of screaming, and it should go without saying that screaming is off limits in professional communications. Similarly, do not abuse the high priority flag for emails; indicate urgency only in truly time-sensitive situations.

Before You Hit “Send”

Double check your spelling and grammar before you send an email. In our technologically advanced world, there is no reason to have misplaced apostrophes or misspelled words. Your clients and colleagues will agree with me on this one, so choose your words carefully, and then review them before hitting “send.”

Do not text.

Though it’s becoming increasingly common for text messages to enter the legal world, texting is ill advised.

Aside from the problem of the blurred boundary between a lawyer’s personal and professional time, it confounds attorney-client privilege because, for the most part, lawyers use personal phones for any phone calls taken or placed away from their desks. While attorney-client privilege should cover communications between lawyers and clients on any forum as long as the client has not waived it, there seems little reason for blurring the bright-line distinction between privileged and non-privileged content.

If you do choose to text, whether with clients or colleagues or both,

  • apply the rules of professional email to your text messages;
  • choose your words carefully,  as people can take photographs of text messages and disseminate them widely; and
  • look out for auto-correct errors.

As a general rule of thumb, don’t rely on text messaging for immediate communication. While that is often an ideal use of text messaging in the non-professional world, you should not assume that others use text messaging for professional purposes, just because you do.

Be thoughtful, always.

Thinking through these and other tips you’ve received can be time-consuming. We’re not always able to recall the general rules of professional etiquette at the precise moment we need them. Thus, it helps to keep an overarching principle in mind: be thoughtful, always. Most if not all tips fall under that enormous umbrella. Though not everyone will reciprocate, you should help hold up the standard.


Katie Burke practices family law at The Wald Law Group in San Francisco.

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