May 30, 2017 Technology

'Talk to Me:' Tools to Improve Communications

Jeffrey Allen and Ashley Hallene

We often are reminded of the shortcomings in how we communicate with family. The same goes for communicating with clients and colleagues. This month’s tips examine communication and how to do it effectively, efficiently and securely. The importance of communication cannot be stressed enough as bar associations frequently point out that 70 to 80 percent of grievances filed against lawyers is due to:

  • "lack of communications"
  • "inattention to the Client’s matter"
  • "failure to communicate"; or
  • "failure to keep clients advised about their matter"

As George Bernard Shaw aptly observed, "The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place." With these tips, you can take your communications beyond illusion to a level of satisfaction for both you and your client.

Understand how your family, clients and colleagues communicate.

The people around you likely fall into one of these generational categories:

  1. Veterans (born before 1946)
  2. Baby Boomers (1946-1964)
  3. Generation X (1965-1979)
  4. Generation Y or Millennials (1980-2000)
  5. Generation Z (2000-2010)
  6. Generation Alpha (born after 2010)

It is important to understand that, in addition to having differing values and world views, these generations also tend to have differing communication styles. People from the Veterans or Baby Boomer generation may prefer face-to-face or telephone communications, while many millennials prefer less formal communications such as email, text message or instant messaging. To avoid alienating a particular generation as a potential client, you need to be open to a variety of communication avenues, but you also need to be aware of the consequences of each. If you prefer to use a standard form of communication, make sure to include that in your engagement letter with a new Client, so both of you have the same expectations.

Communicate if you need to take time off.

There are times when you need to be away from the office, whether it is for medical reasons, or to take care of a loved one, or the elusive sabbatical. Even if you work solo, it can be done. Communication is a key component to being prepared for leave.

  1. Well in advance of your leave, notify your clients and colleagues of when you will not be available.
  2. Designate a contact for clients during your leave. If you have colleagues who can share the workload, use them. If not, find another responsible attorney that clients can contact and work with until you are back in the office.
  3. Make sure you file a Notice of Leave for Absence with the courts where appropriate.

Know When to Hold ‘Em.

Knowing when to hold a meeting is key. Trying to schedule a meeting between two people can be daunting when a flurry of emails or text messages are going back and forth. Add in a few more essential meeting attendees and communications are bound to get lost or jumbled. Clean up the process with an online meeting scheduling tool. Some options to consider are:

Both are free to the user and potential meeting attendees with little to no set-up required. From the website, create a new event and designate a variety of time slots and then you can either email a link to potential meeting attendees or enter their email addresses in to the website and let the website email them directly. Recipients can then click a link, go to the poll, check off their available times and enter their names and, voila, you have a clear picture of what time works best for the most people.

Communicate with colleagues better with shared To-Do Lists.

With each new matter, list out the steps that need to be taken and stay on top of who is doing, or has done, which step. There are a variety of shared To-Do lists on the market today and many are available for little to no cost. Three to consider are:

  • Cozi – designed for families but works well for project management.
  • Google Docs Spreadsheets
  • Trello – easily set up and connect with colleagues and family members.

Know the ABA’s opinion on transmitting client information

Check out ABA Formal Opinion 477, which was issued May 11, 2017, about a lawyer’s ethical duties when transmitting client information over the internet. (You can read it here) The opinion examines the duty to communicate, addressed in Model Rule 1.4. It reads

When the lawyer reasonably believes that highly sensitive confidential client information is being transmitted so that extra measures to protect the email transmission are warranted, the lawyer should inform the client about the risks involved. The lawyer and client then should decide whether another mode of transmission, such as high level encryption or personal delivery is warranted. Similarly, a lawyer should consult with the client as to how to appropriately and safely use technology in their communication, in compliance with other laws that might be applicable to the client.

If a client insists or requires that you use a form of communications that you feel may be at risk or in violation of the rules, make certain the Client is informed of the risks and consents in writing.

Communication and competency go hand-in-hand in our profession, whether it is the Attorney-Client, Attorney-Colleague or Attorney-Judge relationship. It is a required skill for lawyers and one of the most commonly referenced failures in attorney grievance proceedings. It is our hope that these tips will help you communicate better, faster and smarter, benefitting both your practice and personal life.

Jeffrey Allen and Ashley Hallene

Jeffrey Allen is the principal in the Graves & Allen law firm in Oakland, California, where he has practiced since 1973. He is active in the ABA, the California State Bar Association and the Alameda County Bar Association.

Ashley Hallene is a petroleum landman at Alta Mesa Holdings, LP, and practices Oil and Gas law, Title Examination, Due Diligence, Acquisitions and Oil and Gas Leasing in Houston, Texas. She frequently speaks in technology CLEs and is Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the Technology and Reviews Department of the GPSolo eReport.