Best lawyers use better interpersonal communication skills

Nick Augustine is a freelance writer, broadcaster, publicity and marketing strategist and he teaches SEO and social media. Nick writes legal industry columns for Chicago Lawyer magazine regarding business and career development. Nick is an alumnus of Marquette University and The John Marshall Law School, where he is an active alumni board member. @NickAugustinePR, @APIFCharity and Augustine Legal PR.

Last week, I was talking to a friend who is a judge in a local domestic relations court. My friend expressed concerns about young attorneys and their perceived ability to communicate. Communication is a key component of law practice. The judge complained that motions and pleadings are poorly written and young counsel seem hesitant to pick up the phone and negotiate with opposing counsel, and instead only communicate through e-mail and text. Years ago, Stephen Hawking started talking about the dangers of reliance on technology and the breakdown of interpersonal human interaction. If we only speak through screens and mobile devices, we miss key components of what makes us successful.

Successful communicators know that interpersonal communication is contextual. Communication is more than the exchange of messages. When, in person, we can see another’s reaction to what we say. How are they sitting? Are they engaged? What fires up your opponent? The environment in which we interact can also affect the quality of an exchange. Attorneys meeting in an office during business hours can produce a more targeted discussion where the parties walk away from a memorable event.

Why does it all need to be an event? It doesn’t. There seems little reason to meet face-to-face to schedule or manage housekeeping. When it comes to major decisions, however, the benefits of interpersonal meetings as events outweigh the efficiency savings of an e-mail or letter exchange.

Applied to law practice, using the domestic relations practitioners as examples, consider the importance of a real meeting of the minds among counsel when negotiating for a client. If you prepare and sit down with an opponent to discuss your client’s positions, you use all five senses. The more senses we engage, the better we will learn and commit to memory the various elements of the transaction. Look at communication like a transaction with multiple elements. The non-verbal contextual clues are elements, and when used like a poker player, these elements can be useful when you notice them.

Back to the concerned judge, I am not sure why the quality of writing suffers, but if I had to point a finger, the 140-character impact might be to blame. Do we lose meaning when we do not complete a sentence? Do abbreviations dilute meaning? My advice to the new classes of legal writers: Learn how to be concise but outline your points and offer quality evidence and authority in your writing where possible. Legal writing is mechanical and follows mathematic-like rules. When writing, show your math and write clearly, because, IMHO, the judge isn’t likely 2 LOL at UR OMG allegations and IDK replies.

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