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EXPERT WITNESS: Hool Law Group attorney Jon Coury
Have you ever received the following text message from a client: “Is this deal 2G2BT?” Have you ever received a text message from a client at all? What in the world does “2G2BT?” mean? (In text message lingo, it means “too good to be true.”) What did my client mean when he texted me to “911 immed”? Was I supposed to know that he wanted me to “call him immediately”?
We live in the digital age, and we can’t escape contact with the digital world in our personal and professional everyday lives. We communicate with our friends and loved ones on Facebook, and with other professionals through LinkedIn. We have constant interaction with our clients, colleagues, superiors and assistants by e-mail.
Recently, I have begun receiving text messages from clients and colleagues. Communicating with friends via social media sites and text messaging is one thing, but communicating with business associates and clients that way is another. When you consider that some of the more established members of our business community have never used digital media, while virtually all of the younger members have grown up on it, you have the potential for a high rate of unintended misunderstandings. In the end, being an effective service provider requires that we all take a step back and focus on how we communicate as much as crafting the substantive content of the communication itself.
Effective communication begins with understanding your audience and tailoring your communication to that understanding. My legal practice is primarily focused on advising clients, many of whom are entrepreneurs, on various corporate topics, such as commercial transactions, securities, finance, and venture capital, mergers and acquisitions and corporate governance matters. We deal with a wide range of clients – from individuals at large established companies to those at smaller family owned businesses. We work with sophisticated “serial” entrepreneurs who have successfully exited various businesses in the past, as well as first-time entrepreneurs with no business background who are certain their idea is the next big thing. The level of explanation I would give to one of my clients who has successfully operated multiple ventures would be different from that which I would give to a first-time entrepreneur.
Effective communication is enhanced by using an appropriate means of communication to convey your conclusions, particularly in the digital age. Our law firm is in its third year as a community partner working as in-residence attorneys for the Innovation Advancement Program (IAP) at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. Through this experience, I have had the opportunity to assist students with legal and other issues in the program’s representation of various start-up and emerging local technology companies. One of the most interesting aspects of working with students has been to understand their heavy reliance on digital media as a means of communication. They send e-mails at all hours of the day and night, some formally worded and others more casually. Most typically prefer sending e-mails to clients rather than conducting business on a telephone call or in person.
An essential aspect of the IAP is what students learn that cannot be taught in a typical classroom setting. For example, students recently spent significant time reviewing a client’s business plan and concluded that the client’s business concept was not unique to the market. They determined that the client would need to compete with several well-established and well-funded companies currently operating in the intended space. Due to these factors, the students believed that the client’s ultimate success would require, at a minimum, a shift in the client’s general business plan.
The students and I spent time discussing not only the substance of their conclusions, but also how they anticipated conveying their conclusions to the clients. How the message was delivered to the client was as important as the final conclusion. Sending the client an e-mail with a memorandum attached that contained well-researched information and a well-reasoned conclusion seemed like the easy task. I suspect some of the students even considered sending the client a text message that said: “NIMY” (not in a million years). My advice to the students was to set up a face-to-face meeting to discuss their conclusions. The students did this and built some significant trust with the client . . . even if the client was not thrilled with their advice.
Communicating with clients and colleagues prior to the digital revolution was probably easier. Letters and memos were meant to be formal, and the language used was meant to reflect that formality. Today, however, the most effective attorneys (and all professionals) place importance on how to communicate their results. When will a casually written e-mail suffice? What circumstances require a formal letter? And (gulp), what circumstances would permit an appropriately written text message? Effective communication is an essential characteristic of a successful attorney. Relearning these skills (and, in the case of the youngest members of our workforce, learning these skills for the first time) will enable us to more successfully perform our jobs. Because, in the end, none of us wants this text message from our client: “ur fired!”