There is no doubt that communication has changed drastically for attorneys over the last 25 years. The speed of options and tools available has changed the way lawyers practice.
While it is great to be able to access information and documents 24/7, some uses of communication tools are not always advantageous to your career. It may be time to think more strategically about how and when to use these great tools.
While you might like to believe that all of the potential employers or clients with whom you are working will relate to your work style, remember that many of the people who make decisions about your career—from the time you enter it and as you advance—may not be lawyers, and may not be from your generation. Ultimately, the decision maker may be a baby boomer who is less technically savvy than you are, for example. While younger generations have been waiting for this group to retire, economic circumstances have waylaid their departure from the decision-making ranks of many employers. Many of these boomers are quite likely to have more conservative attitudes about business and professional communications than their junior counterparts. While it may seem beneficial to partake in all the electronic tools available, it is more important to tailor actual communications conservatively to your specific audience. If you are going to be communicating with someone over a period of time, discuss their preferences with them. Be sure to share your own preferences as well. Here are some specific thoughts to jumpstart a positive working relationship:
Do they like to be called on a landline or a cell phone? Do they prefer to skip the phone altogether and communicate by email? Perhaps they prefer to communicate by text message when out of the office. If you are trying to garner favor in a job interview process, a referral relationship or on behalf of client development, it simply makes sense to communicate in the way most convenient for the other party.
Check on daily time preferences as well. While you may be more than happy to take business-related calls late in the evening, some people prefer to create a bright line between work and home life, so crossing over that line will not be to your advantage. Remember that just because you sent an email at 10:00 p.m., you cannot presume the other party chooses to be connected at that time.
On all of your devices with voice communication, set up a clear and straightforward voicemail message. Include both your name and phone number. Take the time to fully listen to a voicemail message before returning the call. There is nothing more annoying for a caller than leaving a detailed message, only to have the other party simply hit reply. If you have voicemail, others rightfully expect you to use it.
Do not make or receive employment- or career-related cell phone calls in a public place. Once again, if you are interested in engaging the other person, you should make the conversation as easy and productive for the other party as possible. The same goes for calling or responding to a call in the car. Let the caller leave you a message, and return the call in a private and quiet location. Taking a private call in a public place calls your judgment into question.
A Signature Line: Though email has been around for years, it remains a much-used form of business and professional communication. Make sure to set up a professional looking default signature block to use with all email messages. It will take you only three minutes, and it helps others communicate with you.
Email Format: While it is fine to dash off a line or two to a friend with no greeting or signature, resist the urge to do so in all business settings. At work, treat your email communications to outside parties in the same manner as you would a business letter. While you may be one of the few people doing this, it never hurts to project a professional image in all correspondences.
Use of Employer Systems: When you are job searching, resist the urge to communicate about job-related activities on your employer’s devices. This can be tricky, but at a minimum, do not send any application materials through your work-related email or on an employer-owned device. Even if you are applying for a job while at work on your personal email account, you are still using your employer’s server. If your employer monitors its systems, you are setting yourself up to be discovered.
Proofing and Printing: There is no reason to not have spell check activated in all email communications; however, this seems to be a common oversight. Some people rely solely on spell check, which is simply insufficient. Proof every email that matters to you, which of course includes all of your business correspondence. When it comes to a really important email, print it and read it. Printing email is frowned upon these days, but if you are sending an important message, such as a job application, 100% accuracy is critical. Better yet, print it and have someone else proof it. When working on your own material, you are more likely than not to self-correct small imperfections. If you are in an employment search, remember that every piece of correspondence is an integral part of the interview process.
Everyone has heard the horror story about the young applicant who is eliminated from consideration for a position because he or she has posted something unseemly on a social media site. It has become routine for employers to Google candidates during the interview process to see what might surface. Now would be a good time to check the privacy settings on your social media accounts. The settings seem to change almost on a weekly basis, so make sure your monitoring is as you desire, and up to date. Your best bet is, of course, never to post anything you wouldn’t want a prospective employer to see. Remember that many things posted on the Internet have a shelf life close to that of plutonium.
On the flip side, take advantage of the ways in which social media can positively increase your career presence online. A robust LinkedIn account is a way of showing a potential employer your résumé in a different format, and it demonstrates that you have connected with your professional community. It is a good idea to beef up your account before you start applying. If you are telling a prospective employer that you have excellent marketing skills, but you only have 15 connections on LinkedIn, you are sending a mixed message.
“Thank you” letters after job interviews shouldn’t be sent by email unless you have been invited to communicate in this manner. Email, as a form of business communication, is uninvited mailbox clutter if you are not yet a current employee, unless it is for purely logistical reasons related to an interview. A handwritten or typed letter will get more attention than email, and it proves that the position is important to you. Make sure to send a thank-you letter within 24 hours after every interview.
While we have so many different means of communication these days, failures in communication remain the biggest cause of ethic complaints and legal malpractice claims. If you don’t communicate effectively on your own behalf, you may be indicating to your potential employer that you will have the same difficulty when communicating with clients. Getting into good habits when communicating for your own benefit should have the opposite result, indicating how effective you might be with clients. That is a habit worth fostering.