How to Choose the Right Communication Method for Your Law Firm Staff

In my last post, How to Improve Communication with Your Small Law Firm Team, I talked about the purpose, audience, substance, and context of your communication, and gave some tips on being a good listener. In this post, we’ll explore how to choose the right method of communication with your team, and why email is often not the right choice.

The method of communication you choose sends its own message, and it can make or break your communication. Each method has its own pros and cons, which are influenced by the factors above.

The most common methods you’ll use to connect with your team are face to face meetings, telephone calls and email, so this post will focus on those, although you may occasionally meet by video conference or communicate via text message.

Pros and Cons of Different Methods of Communication

Face to face meetings – whether in a group or one on one – are the most personal method of communication, and each party to the discussion has an opportunity to use the visual and auditory information they receive to assess the conversation. These include not only the words being spoken, but other non-verbal cues, including body language, tone of voice, and facial expression. But face to face meetings, particularly with a group of people, or when travel is required to attend, can be time-consuming and difficult to schedule.

If you can’t hold a face to face meeting, you might choose a telephone call. Over the phone, you can hear tone and inflection, but body language and facial expressions are lost. And phone calls work best when they are scheduled in advance so that all parties can plan their attendance – unexpected phone calls work occasionally, but sometimes result in numerous voice mail messages and a game of telephone tag.

E-mail is quickly becoming the default method of communication in many small law firms. It seems fast and easy, but it isn’t always the right tool for the job. It can easily become a crutch, particularly for those who prefer to hide behind a keyboard or want to avoid confrontation.

Email can also come across as cold or impersonal, and email messages are notoriously easy to misinterpret, since all auditory and visual cues are absent.

When Email Is a Poor Communication Choice

Your choice of communication method will rely on the factors discussed in my last post: what is the substance of the communication you are sending? What is the purpose of the communication or the goal you would like to achieve? Who is the audience for the communication? And finally, what is the context of the communication?

If the substance of the communication is sensitive or is likely to involve strong emotions, a face to face meeting might be your best bet. Face to face communication is also a good choice to convey anything personal, corrective, or negative. And if tone or inflection are important, a phone call or in person discussion is probably more appropriate than email.

Since many small firms rely so heavily on email, it makes sense to talk about when email is a bad choice for communication.

A big drawback of email as a communication tool is that it can be deceptively time-consuming. Although it may seem fast and easy to send an email message, if your purpose is to get input from your recipients, email can slow down the process and make it more confusing for everyone involved. While some recipients will hit ‘reply all’ so that everyone gets their response, others will respond only to the original sender, leaving the remainder of the recipients out of the conversation. Responses will be asynchronous and may not come in all on the same thread; some recipients may respond to the initial thread, while others may respond to the most recent email response received from other recipients, and so forth.

Even when there are only two people involved in the email conversation, sometimes picking up the phone or walking down the hall is a much more efficient way to accomplish a task or to get the answer you need, because it avoids the back and forth (and delay) of email messages.

Think twice before using email as a method for scheduling meetings, especially those with several attendees, as it generates an unproductive string of messages. Instead, use a scheduling tool created specifically for that purpose.

E-mail is best used to communicate facts, but even then, it isn’t always the best choice. Firm-wide notifications of important issues, such as when an employee is fired or when the firm is ready to introduce a new program or policy may be best communicated in a firm-wide or group meeting. Presenting these issues in person gives the firm an opportunity to give background information, generate enthusiasm, and allow for questions and open discussion, preventing gossip and speculation that can accompany announcements made by e-mail.

Tips for More Effective Email Communications

If you do use email, be aware that your email will set the tone for the conversation. Write in full sentences, in a professional tone, using correct spelling, grammar and punctuation to give the best impression possible and to increase the chances that you’ll receive similar responses. If you send a lengthy email, expect a lengthy response. Be brief and to the point to generate brief responses.

Tell the recipient what you expect from the communication. Do you want them to acknowledge your email? Provide a yes or no response? Take some action? Inform you that they have completed a task? If there is no response required, say so.

If you’re using email because you want to save time, be as brief as possible; those who respond to you are more likely to be brief in response.

Employ good subject lines and limit the number of topics covered in one email message. The subject line of your email plays an important role in ensuring your message is opened, read and responded to. Make sure the subject line doesn’t waste words and that it accurately reflects the content of your email.

If the subject of your email conversation changes mid-stream, edit the subject line to reflect the new content of your email. This also makes email messages easier to find later. If your message covers more than one subject, indicate that in the subject line, use bullets or numbering to clearly identify each subject, and advise whether a specific response to each item is needed – nothing is more frustrating than sending an email with multiple issues and receiving a response that does not address them all.

Before scheduling a meeting, opening a new email message or picking up the telephone, think about which method of communication is most appropriate considering the substance, purpose, audience, and context of your communication.

Allison C. Shields, Esq. is President of Legal Ease Consulting, Inc., which provides productivity, practice management, marketing, business development and social media training, coaching and consulting services for lawyers and law firms nationwide. She is a co-author of How to Do More in Less Time: The Complete Guide to Increasing Your Productivity and Improving Your Bottom Line, published by the American Bar Association Law Practice Division, among other books, and she frequently lectures and writes on all of these topics for bar associations, law firms, law schools and other legal organizations. Her website, Lawyer Meltdown, and blog, Legal Ease Blog, provide tools, resources and information to help lawyers improve their practices.

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