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.