Talk to me: putting an end to canned conversations

So, have you recently left a voice mail for someone under 30, never to have it returned or even acknowledged? A post at Legal Blog Watch might have the answer: it seems Millennials regard voice mails as unsolicited messages not much different than spam, and treat them accordingly. It’s an interesting idea, one I fact-checked with a friend in his 30s. His reply: “I’ve been known to let my voice mail sit for days. If it’s important, they’ll (a) call back or (b) email my BlackBerry, and I can respond from wherever I am.” It’s hard to argue with the sheer pragmatism of that approach.

The LBW post touched off a lengthy discussion in which many people talked about how much they dislike voice mail. Interestingly, though, most of the dislike was for receiving voice mails, the hassle of going through the endless series of commands only to get a short and often pointless message. Hardly anyone talked about whether they liked leaving voice mails. And that raises a question relevant to communication in law firms, one I’ve been pondering for a while. Here’s the question, one you can ask yourself: “As a general rule, if I’m phoning someone to give them information, am I happier to reach them in person or to to hear the click of the voice mail activating?”

It’s my theory that most lawyers fall into the second camp: we prefer to get the machine and to leave a message. If that’s correct — and I have no way to find out one way or the other, so I’d be interested in your answers — it would be consistent with a general reluctance by lawyers to engage in direct conversation. We’ve developed and refined a habit over the years of distancing ourselves from the person with whom we’re communicating. In the old days, we’d labour for hours over a finely crafted letter rather than speak to someone in person; more recently, the advent of email and voice mail and even texting has allowed us to happily delay and defer direct contact, keeping the other person at arm’s length.

This especially seems to be the case when the other person is a client. Many lawyers appear to dread lengthy, direct conversation with clients. I suppose some of it might be a reluctance to spend potentially billable time in mere conversation — although few lawyers are reluctant to bill clients for everything said over the phone between Hello and Goodbye. A better diagnosis, I think, is that lawyers distrust conversation, because conversations can’t be controlled.

An email says what you want it to say and nothing more, a voice mail can be rehearsed to perfection, and both can be deleted and restarted at the touch of a key or button. But once you’re on the phone (or as lawyers might say, “once the other person has you on the phone”), anything might happen, and matters could head in an unexpected direction. Lawyers love words and speech, but we insist that they remain under our firm control. Speech, however, like information, wants to be free, and it breaks out whether we like it or not.

I’ll grant you that this is a little esoteric. But I think there’s an important communications point here: lawyers who over-rely on canned conversations in emails and voice mail compromise their ability to communicate. And this doesn’t apply just to communication with clients, many of whom consistently complain that lawyers don’t communicate often enough or well enough. (If you really want to see a lawyer squirm, put them across the desk from a client and tell them to openly discuss the pricing and payment of bills.) It also applies internally.

How many young lawyers, of any generation, have returned to their office to find a thick file folder on their chair with a note saying, as Above The Law puts it, “Pls handle thx“? How many lawyers hear from senior partners by written memo more often than by spoken word? How many firms circulate news and policy by blast email rather than with a personal touch? (And by the way, consider the implications, for the receiver, of any kind of communication that comes with the adjective “blast.”) What kind of message do these tactics send? One that most lawyers take to heart and return in kind.

If some lawyers don’t listen to voice mail, maybe it’s not entirely a generational thing. Maybe it’s a tacit observation that if the information isn’t worth your time to personally give to me, it’s not worth my time to personally listen to it. And maybe that should be a message to lawyers of all ages: stop using communications technology as a crutch, or as a ten-foot-pole to keep people at bay. Take the time and make the effort to deliver questions and have conversations in person; if the person’s not there when you call, send an email asking them to call you. I think you’ll be pleasantly amazed at how much better communication becomes when we have the courage of our conversations.


  1. George Wilkinson said:

    Many thanks Jordan – an excellent post.

    My trainees learn early on working with me that I prefer a call to an email, and when I ask them to find something out, I suggest they walk down the floor rather than email ~ and always call the client!

    It was not always the case and for much of my career I fell into your second camp ~ but I took the decision a couple of years ago, when I handed back my BlackBerry, that personal communication is better communication.


    @ 9:43 am
  2. Fascinating, Jordan. There’s so much going on here to think about (and I am).

    I read that post yesterday and the comments which, I agree, are very interesting.

    Of course a concern to me (with my marketing hat on) is that dislike of conversing and preference of email or leaving a voicemail over personal interaction are frightening indicators of the direction of customer service! I think this is a key indicator of a person’s ability to succeed in relationship development. Interestingly, the social web seems to provide an effective alternative to those who don’t enjoy verbal conversation. And as a marketing advisor, I’m glad for that.

    Now, as a business owner and personal consumer of professional services, I can tell you that I only want to hire and retain long-term advisors who like to talk with (and listen to) me and if they don’t demonstrate that, I do move on. I WANT a relationship with my advisor to the degree that they KNOW me so they can provide relevant recommendations. Otherwise they are just guessing and that is not good enough for me. I want to be comfortable grabbing a beer together, or relaxing during a lunch meeting or at a social event together. If that can’t happen, it’s not going to work.

    Another thing is that I, too, despise voicemail for all the reasons in that article and comments. The messages are vague and unhelpful. “Call me” doesn’t help me prepare or give me any option to respond using an alternate method. Sometimes I just cannot call. Phone tag is a dreadful game. To your point, I don’t like leaving voicemail, either. Probably because I think they’ll find it as cumbersome as I do. Most of the time, I am a hang-up-and-just-email gal. Unless it’s family. Then I like to receive them and always leave them.

    You’d think that “hearing the voice” would be a positive human connector of which I’m a HUGE proponent in business, but it’s not that positive. People know they are talking to a recording device and it’s usually reflected. Wondering how we’d feel about video messages, instead? probably the same…

    @ 10:30 am
  3. Nick Holmes said:

    Jordan – I’m not sure you’re right about this one.

    If I decide to call someone then I’m deciding to speak with them. If the answerphone kicks in, that’s them not able (or wanting) to speak to me, not my preferring to leave them a message rather than talk to them.

    The problem is landlines don’t have the “missed call” feature of cell phones. I call someone because I want to speak to them; they can’t take the call; I hang up; they get a missed call; they call me back when they are able.

    Millennials do this; dinosaurs leave voicemail.

    @ 4:51 am
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