August 17, 2022

For Law Firms, Dodging a Digital Communications Crisis Is Critical


This is part of a series of book reviews by Mayer Brown chair Jon Van Gorp, whose reading informs his perspective as a lawyer and leader of a global law firm and helps him draw insight from unexpected sources.

At some point in the past two decades, those of us who joined the workforce before the age of social media discovered we were conducting a lot more of our business communications through typing rather than by talking or listening. And if you're like me, you've found that something is often lost in translation in our digital communications ... or didn't translate at all. Compounding these challenges, the pandemic consigned many of us to long periods during which we scarcely saw a colleague or client in person. Our digital communications went into hyperdrive, while our in-person engagement came to a screeching halt.

Here's the problem: we all know that being a good listener is the sine qua non of effective communication. Whether you are sitting across the table from a client or on the phone with a colleague, good listening is how we absorb and interpret a person's state of mind and the problem they are trying to solve. As lawyers, we have learned that good listening can be the difference between offering effective counsel and getting it wrong because we failed to grasp the finer points of the client's concerns. We also know that effective listening isn't just about having a good ear. It involves asking the right questions. Ideally, it's part of a dialogue.

One fundamental challenge with digital communications is the built-in bias in favor of speed and brevity over accuracy and nuance. In her book "Digital Body Language," author Erica Dhawan says we are facing a "digital communication crisis" in which we have rapidly adopted new modes of communication but have not yet developed the skills to use them effectively. Dhawan argues that a key feature of in-person communication is body language, which is missing from most online communications, even when we are on camera. As a result, too often we operate based on fragmentary messages and missed cues.

Dhawan cites numerous examples in which email messages have a blunt tone or use punctuation in a way that leaves recipients unsettled, angry or confused. I can also think of numerous examples where a terse exchange of text-based messages drew the ire of a client—not because of sloppy or tardy work product, but because a message was misconstrued. "Contemporary communication," says Dhawan, "relies more than ever on how we say something rather than on what we say." Yet none of us has been trained to communicate in a digital world. Dhawan notes that about 70% of all team communications are virtual, yet (according to one scholarly journal she cites) the "tone" of emails is misinterpreted 50% of the time.

Dhawan says part of the solution is to become better versed at "digital body language," and apply these four rules: 1) "Value Visibly" (being more explicit in showing that we value, "hear" and understand others); 2) "Communicate Carefully" (being more deliberate, thoughtful and lone-deft" in our virtual communications); 3) "Collaborate Confidently" (taking a collaborative approach that achieves buy-in and builds team confidence); and 4) "Trust Totally" (building trust by modeling positive behavior, being vulnerable and creating digital "watercooler" moments).

I find Dhawan's insights helpful, albeit not always easy to apply. For example, in discussions where most participants are gathered in an office conference room with one person attending virtually, Dhawan suggests having the virtual participant moderate the discussion or use the virtual chat function to solicit opinions before seeking responses from those in the room. For organizations such as Mayer Brown that are committed to combating bias and creating an inclusive work environment, these are ideas to take seriously, recognizing that they may require extra effort and thought from those of us in the room.

The challenge Dhawan presents requires law firm leaders to model what effective digital communication looks like. Perhaps more importantly, we need to model when to "take it offline" and how to use technology in ways that foster engagement and clarity of purpose. Since the start of the pandemic, I have been doing some experimenting. Sometimes it is text-based, as with the newsletter that I send out weekly, sharing everything from business updates to recipes and pet photos from across the firm. Last year, our leadership team began producing internal podcasts featuring stories, humor and conversations with colleagues and thought leaders. In one well-received episode, we talked with a pro bono client whose release from prison we secured after he had spent 23 years behind bars on a joyriding conviction. (He now focused on reentry programs for ex-felons.)

What I like about those experiments is that, ultimately, they are both about listening, which is still the key to effective communication. Since the virtual workplace is not going away and may even become our default mode one day, we would do well to heed Dhawan's advice, accentuate the positive features of digital communications and recognize that they represent new modes of listening. Now we just need to embrace and internalize the new rules.

Reprinted with permission from the August 17 edition of The American Lawyer © 2022 ALM Properties, Inc. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.

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