Let’s Get Together

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By Gerry Riskin | Mar 20, 2014

by Gerry Riskin

Person-to-person is still the best way to communicate with colleagues and clients. This article explores the communication challenges of the information age and offers practical and useful tips for keeping client relations and inter-firm relations on the right track…

Since we can communicate instantly, why not run global practices virtually? As a former managing partner of a law firm with offices on two continents, and now as a consultant to multi-office professional firms around the world, I have concluded that the glue that holds virtual firms together is a function of the quality of the contact–and quality contact also helps bind clients to a firm. People relish personal contact–that is why so many catalog companies opened retail outlets. It is why Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, disclosed in a recent article that he loves shopping in two particular retail bookstores (both competitors). Imagine!

In some firms, the lawyers behave as if each geographical location is a separate firm. Members may see some economic interest in referring matters to one another and even sharing knowledge on occasion, but that does not make them one firm in every sense. Without consistent, deliberate efforts, the firm defaults to a fragmented state.

The firms that are truly behaving like one firm are expending a great deal of effort. The payoff is that they are more profitable and have better clientele than fragmented firms. What are these firms doing to achieve oneness?

  • Ensuring that practice groups (whether based on substantive disciplines, industry groups, or clients) operate seamlessly across the geographical chasms of the firm. This means that a leader must communicate with members of his or her group with consistent frequency and intensity, irrespective of location. (In one firm, the leaders decided that when they got together, anyone who mentioned the city where they practiced would be fined on the spot.) There is an especially troublesome propensity in some firms to allow the oldest or biggest office to be considered the head office, yet this is antithetical to the notion of one firm.
  • Providing as many opportunities as possible for people to meet together, face to face, where they can at least briefly have the kind of contact that two practitioners in adjacent offices have.
  • Providing video conferencing, in addition to the basic communication tools (intranet, e-mail, fax, telephone).
  • Ensuring that office managing partners have very clear direction as to how the relevance and ramification of location should not be permitted to subvert the effort to operate as one firm. For example, members of firmwide groups who reside in that office should be fully participating members of those groups. What the office managing partner should not be permitted to do is foster a mind-set that no one else in the firm could possibly appreciate the unique needs of our location, so we really have to fully structure a parallel firm right here.

FACE TO FACE

In a firm with many offices, it is essential to have a base of real contact that is complemented by essential modern communications. The oldest and most basic form of communications between human beings is face-to-face interaction. Nothing technology has created comes close to real contact. I believe that face-to-face interaction has benefits that are unique and otherwise unattainable.

A previously unstated law of the physics of communications within professional service firms is Riskin’s Law of Virtual Interaction. Simply put, my law states that the number of possible useful virtual interactions between two human beings is a function of the number of meaningful face-to-face interactions between them. Where y is the number of meaningful face-to-face interactions and x is the number of useful virtual interactions, I believe that x can never exceed 10y. If it does, y is no longer useful.

Nonsense? Well, of course the precise values are absolute nonsense because they were invented without a single test tube. Also, context is critical. For example, the frequency of the interactions is important. And the quality and value of daily contacts varies dramatically from the quality and value of occasional contacts with the same client. Furthermore, the quality of one virtual communication differs dramatically from another (e-mail vs. telephone, for instance). Notwithstanding the equation’s lack of precision, I believe that the spirit behind this law is

THE DANGERS OF E-MAIL

E-mail is becoming the most common and frequent form of communication. People in adjacent offices often report, with a chuckle of embarrassment, that they e-mail each other instead of sticking their heads out the door. With the advent of attachments, e-mail has become the miracle document delivery service. It is the most convenient, useful, and dangerous method of communication ever conceived. We express a thought. We transmit it. Do we think? Well, yes, sometimes. Carefully? Um, well, occasionally. Maybe very occasionally. Please don’t misunderstand. I am in favor of e-mail as a communication tool. My caution is that e-mail is potentially a relationship-destroyer. Relationships too heavily reliant on e-mail run the risk of deteriorating. Not only does overuse of e-mail not enhance the relationship, but also the absence of body language, voice inflections, and careful review can give rise to misunderstandings.

While e-mail is superb for transmitting pure data or documents, never, never use e-mail to attempt to deal with an emotional situation or to solve any problem where feelings are a factor. E-mail is as likely to exacerbate the problem as to resolve it.

Why can e-mails be dangerous? They can be ambiguous–if not as to the facts, per se, then as to the tenor, mood, or emotion behind those facts. It is very difficult to determine what the author was feeling or intended. Worse, the author may have inadvertently created a misimpression, and since there was no review, it was not caught before transmission.

A positive statement transmitted in an e-mail might appear cavalier or aloof without the accompanying voice inflections. Imagine the two interpretations of this sentence, first if said with sarcasm, then if said with sincerity: Congratulations on finally getting that corporate reorganization completed. Does that mean It’s about time, you idiot or Well done?

Remember when a letter was dictated and then typed by an assistant or secretary and then brought to you for review? Do you remember correcting or modifying it (changing your mind) before placing your signature at the bottom of the page? Wasn’t there something about putting your signature on it that caused you to pause and reflect upon whether it was good enough to leave the office? Perhaps the distinguished letterhead also fostered caution and care.

If letters were tuxedos and ball gowns, then e-mails would be blue jeans. Do we behave differently in the two sets of attire? You bet we do. Most of us slap an e-mail together as a stream of consciousness. And do we print and review it? No, because there are 37 incoming e-mails to respond to and time is precious.

Can this vulnerability be overcome by reviewing e-mails more carefully? Certainly, discipline might help–but in my experience, most firms do not possess an overabundance of discipline. When the potential minuses of e-mail are weighed against the positives, the ratios should be adjusted. Send less e-mail; rely more on other forms of communication. Pick up that telephone. Even a voice mail message is less risky than e-mail.

REACH OUT AND TOUCH SOMEONE

For professionals, the telephone has long been the most important communication tool. One study suggested that lawyers and other professionals are interrupted by telephone calls, on average, once every eight minutes. A telephone call, therefore, is so common that it has the advantage of being familiar. You don’t have to wonder if the person you’re calling is accustomed to using one. Perhaps the biggest benefit of communicating by telephone is that telephone conversations are less likely to give rise to misperceptions than an e-mail.

A telephone call is not the equal of a face-to-face discussion, but it does have a few things going for it. In a telephone conversation, we can usually hear emotion. Even when a caller has to leave a voice mail message, we can still read the emotion. Yet there are some who still do not have voice mail. These misguided creatures think they are doing their clients and colleagues a favor by ensuring they talk to living, breathing support staff. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I will be the first to admit that a tiny fraction of firms have incredibly gifted, talented, and well-trained support staff. The rest? Heaven help you if you don’t have voice mail. Let’s be honest: Humans get the facts wrong (some of the time) and rarely read or convey emotion well.

I recall vividly the days before voice mail in my law practice when my secretary once mentioned that the chief financial officer of my largest corporate client had called and sounded angry. This client had revenues in the hundreds of millions of dollars, so you will understand my concern. When I spoke with him (promptly), I learned that he was not angry at all–rather the opposite, really–and my secretary had merely misread him. I spent a few anxious moments unnecessarily. Personal voice mail allows the intended recipient to interpret the emotion of the caller. I realize that some clients may use different tones with their attorney and members of the support staff, but I still want to hear that message myself.

USE SNAIL MAIL

Now, at the risk of your thinking that I am completely impractical, I will suggest that you consider sometimes actually using pen, paper, and a stamp. Why would I suggest such an antiquated communication process? You can help answer that one for yourself. What does it feel like to receive a personal, handwritten letter? The fact that they are increasingly rare, I contend, gives them ever-increasing value. But it takes too long to get them to the recipient, you argue. When appropriate, then, have it delivered by courier; otherwise, you might take a lesson from Jack Welsh, the celebrated head of General Electric for 25 years. Jack likes to fax and mail personal notes.

I admit that this may not be the most practical communication option in all situations, but consider it when you believe the benefits may warrant it. (Do you have some personal stationery on hand? Do you have a supply of thank-you cards? If not, stop reading this and go buy some.)

‘TINY HEADS ON THE SCREEN’

Video conferencing is much better than e-mail and at least marginally better than the telephone, but is still less desirable than face-to-face interaction. A leading futurist recently pointed out that video conferencing technology still needs subtle improvements–for instance, how the camera is positioned. Have you ever had a conversation with a person who was not looking at your eyes but rather staring at your forehead or neck? It is very disconcerting. In video conferences, we are subconsciously, if not consciously, aware that the people we are talking to are not looking directly at us–in other words, the eye contact is of poor to unacceptable quality.

Many of my client firms use video conferencing technology, but most use it less than they intended and are less satisfied with it than they thought they would be. As one client put it recently, I see tiny heads on the screen. . . . It’s hard to make out who is speaking. (I know the potential of good systems that are well-operated, but how often are they well-operated?) Where does this leave us? If you have people in different locations and you really care whether you are one firm, not a set of different firms with the same name, then here are my recommendations:

  • Have frequent face-to-face meetings for your people. Some firms spend enormous sums of money getting together various combinations of their people on a variety of excuses. This investment will pay off handsomely. Geographical cross-selling does not happen without building trusting relationships. That trust is extremely hard to develop without real, face-to-face interaction. Of course, senior management must be willing to live on airplanes, which isn’t so bad if you invest in a pair of noise-blocking headphones and carry an MP3.
  • Supply your people with personal stationery so they will always have some on hand. Encourage them to put it in writing once in awhile, and by that I mean handwriting. Supply thank-you cards. Insist that your people always, always say thank you by personal note.
  • Ensure that it is easy and fast for your people to telephone one another regardless of geographical location–especially when problem solving. Call them to encourage them to telephone each other.
  • Get the best voice mail system available. Encourage voice-to-voice communication. Discourage those involved in firm management from using text messages. Even a broadcast voice mail is better than a memo or e-mail. Confirming details by e-mail is all right, but try not to use it when communicating the essence of an issue. Managing by memo is cowardly and ineffective.

There are great rewards for operating a truly cohesive firm functioning in harmony across geographical distances. The modern communication tools make that easier, but also create the potential for creating and exacerbating problems. Getting back to personal contact will help to glue your people together, and the trust and confidence that result will benefit your business.

Gerald A. Riskin is a former managing partner and a founder of Edge International, which consults to some of the largest law firms in the world. He has taught client-relations skills in more than 300 law firms. He can be reached at riskin@edge.ai or +1 202 957 6717.

© 2001 NLP IP Company. All rights reserved. This article is reprinted with permission from Legal Times (subscriptions@legaltimes.com).