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Think You Know the Basics of Workplace Communication?

John Skakun

Think You Know the Basics of Workplace Communication?
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A state appellate court judge once described legal writing as part technical and part storytelling. Lawyers must balance the specialized language of jurisprudence with concise and easily understandable verbiage to clearly convey a case’s holding, for example, without undue difficulty to the reader.

As a lawyer, you’ll use these same skills in office communications and in communication with clients. And post-pandemic work requires even greater flexibility and adaptability than ever. As law firms pivot, here’s how to make sure your communications are prompt, clear, and professional.

The Spoken Word

Your first day on the new job is likely nerve-racking. You’re anxious to please, excited to get to work, and looking forward to putting all those hours spent studying to use.

When you’re entering a new office, you’re also inserting yourself into an environment with pre-established relationships among coworkers, some likely spanning decades. Learning to maneuver these relationships comes with time.

Your most important immediate task, however, is making a good impression on your coworkers—after all, these are the people you’ll see every day, those with whom you’ll closely work to serve clients, and those whose help you’ll inevitably solicit as you become accustomed to your new responsibilities.

Some Basics

Look your coworkers in the eye when speaking to them, and act amiably but not overly friendly at first. Preserve an air of professionalism, understanding that collegiality and professional friendships will organically develop as you acclimate to the workplace environment.

Next Level

Ask a coworker to lunch, or sit with a group in the break room or cafeteria. You don’t have to be the chattiest person at the table but try to involve yourself in casual conversation. Build a friendly rapport with your colleagues and get to know them.

Also, learn your office structure and determine whom you should seek help from when you need it—and whom you should avoid.

The Written Word

Post-pandemic, no two offices are the same. While some have completely returned to in-person work, many remain fully remote or a hybrid, with varying regulations on who can work where and when. At my office, attorneys and staff can work remotely or determine their own hybrid schedules.

Nobody’s schedules are the same, and it can be difficult to remember who’s where and when. When working in a hybrid model, it’s best to consistently maintain a schedule so colleagues can plan better and avoid scheduling meetings on days that aren’t ideal.

You must, however, balance consistency with flexibility. If your supervising attorney requires you to be in the office or attend a hearing on what’s normally your remote day, you must do that. On the other hand, working in the office on your remote day won’t usually create confusion.

If you decide to work remotely on a day of the week you’re typically in the office, remind colleagues you’ll be absent beforehand, even if you’ll be open to meetings and active online. Note your absence in a shared firm or organizational calendar. If you won’t be able to respond to emails that day, set up an auto-reply email detailing the length of your absence and when you anticipate responding to the sender’s email. For example: “I will be out of the office Feb. 1 and will respond to emails the morning of Feb. 2.”

Become familiar with intra-office communications tools. My office uses Microsoft Teams for remote hearings. We use Skype, however, to send quick messages among co-workers. Email is typically reserved for more formal communications. Other offices may use Zoom, WebEx, Skype, Google Hangouts, or other platforms for remote meetings.

The trick here is adaptability. While all these media are different, they often share commonalities. Use these to your advantage so you can easily harness any office’s communication platforms.

Mind Your Email Manners

Emails are the dominant communication tool among lawyers and clients. An ill-composed email can hamper your work and leave the recipient with a bad impression of you. Always respond to emails promptly. Recipients are busy and anticipate quick responses. And always be thoughtful, careful, and methodical in drafting emails.

Writer, content creator, and attorney Kerry Gorgone stated that email etiquette is necessary to avoid alienating recipients. Gorgone recommended beginning emails with a personalized greeting. “Good morning, John” works. “Hey, let’s . . .” may be less appropriate at a law firm.

Scrutinize Your Tone

Because emails don’t contain social context, scrutinize the tone of all your emails to ensure that you’re not creating an opportunity for misinterpretation or offense. Gorgone recommends avoiding slang, profanity, and emoji in emails. Brevity and clarity are key.

Pay Attention to Punctuation

Also, pay attention to punctuation, and use exclamation points conservatively—if at all. Your email’s subject line should clearly and sufficiently outline the point of your email. People are busy and impatient; they don’t want to read overly complicated, wordy correspondence. So your emails shouldn’t be especially lengthy—articulate what you need to convey and nothing more. When adding attachments, make sure they’re not too large.

When a supervising attorney emails you an assignment, email them back, affirming that you understand the assignment and asking any follow-up questions you have. If your supervisor didn’t provide a deadline, ask when the assignment is due.

Use an Email Signature

Your emails should also always conclude with an email signature that includes your name, title, company, and contact information. Perhaps include a link to your LinkedIn profile or a remote calendar for colleagues and clients to schedule appointments with you. If your firm has any specialized imagery or logos, include those in your signature. Create this email signature with your email software to ensure uniformity and that they automatically generate at the end of every email you send.

Take a Pause

Before finally sending, pause and reread your email. I’ll say it again: pause and reread your email. If you’re able, read it out loud to correct any errors you’ve gone blind to. This brief, final pause is a time for reflection. Ask yourself: How do I come across in this email? Am I answering the question completely and succinctly? Is my tone respectful? Is anything missing?

Include All Necessary Info

Your email should contain all the necessary information you wish to convey and nothing you shouldn’t. Sending an incomplete email followed by a corrective follow-up email is a major faux pas. To avoid automatic or accidental premature sending, don’t insert your recipient’s email address until you’re ready to send the email. Once you’re positive the email is ready, then you can hit send.

This process may seem tedious, but it will eventually become automatic, ensuring that you’re communicating sufficiently and properly. Your colleagues and clients will appreciate the extra few moments it takes to properly write and proofread your email.

Scheduling for Success

When scheduling meetings, always send a digital calendar invitation detailing the time and location of the meeting or a link to the remote meeting platform. Provide any meeting ID and password the platform requires. If you’ve agreed to meet in person with a coworker or client, send a calendar link to ensure they remember the appointment. If details change before the date, update the calendar link so that everyone is aware of modifications to the meeting.

If you receive a calendar invitation, RSVP promptly. Typically, it’s best not to respond with an email confirmation—a calendar RSVP will suffice—unless you’re hoping to make changes to the meeting time or have questions or concerns.

Log in to remote meetings at least five minutes before the meeting time, and send any documents meeting participants will need prior to the meeting for the sake of efficiency. Lawyers love to talk, and what was scheduled as a 15-minute “office huddle” can easily become an hour-long diatribe or lament. Always be respectful of your colleagues’ valuable time, and do your best to avoid any delays before and during meetings.