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The Dis-Associate

Back Off That Send Button, Buddy

By William Melater

The TV was still on when I rolled over to see my sleeping wife curled up with our puppy. She’s a Malti-Poo (the dog, not the wife), and despite weighing only three pounds, usually controls 80 percent of our queen-size bed. The clock says it’s 1:30 a.m., and I have to get up in five hours. It’s been a slow month, I’m behind on my billable hours and running out of workdays. Despite the hour, my eyes are drawn to my cell phone, charging and set on silent. It’s lit up. That can only mean one thing: An email.

Where’s that damn controller? I can never find it. Seconds after putting one down, it disappears into a black hole. I should invent leashes for TV controllers. Strap them to your wrist and never lose them at night! I’d make millions.

The phone.

Just like nothing good happens after midnight, no good email comes after hours. With reluctance, I reach for the phone and pull up email. It’s from my boss, the senior partner. The subject is “Your pleadings,” and the email simply reads: “The motion you prepared is unacceptable and lazy.”

My mind plays back an old tape: “I should have gone to medical school.” First, I have no idea what he is talking about —it’s been at least two weeks since I’ve prepared a motion. Second, this is one of many emails I’ve received well after midnight from my not-so-emotionally-stable boss. More thoughts race through my head: “Why is my boss up at 1:30 a.m.?” “What motion does he think I prepared?” “How can a motion be lazy?” “What medication is he on?” “Why am I awake?” “Where is that damn controller?”

But the one question my foggy brain keeps returning to is this: Why does my boss email me at 1:30 a.m. rather than wait to speak to me, in person, at 8:30 a.m.?

And it’s not just him. Coworkers email questions from an office next door. The paralegal emails me information from 10 feet away from my desk. Opposing counsels send emails threatening sanctions and motions, yet when I call back immediately they are dependably “out of the office.” Business, especially the business of law, is about communication. Sure, I may be all new school with my iPhone, and iPad and personal Internet cloud—but I am forever old school with communication. I prefer handshake meetings and will settle for telephone conversations. If you shoot me an email, expect a phone call in return. We may work in different offices, but not on different planets.

Getting Through to Younger Associates

There’s always a lot of talk about why the different generations can’t to see eye-to-eye—or why senior partners can’t seem to connect with those of us on the lower rungs. The way I see it, it’s just not that hard. There are three simple—and I stress simple—rules when communicating with younger associates:

  1. Talk to us. While we may have the latest gadget or sometimes speak in “technology mumbo-jumbo,” we really are just like you. Let’s face it, older attorneys have been practicing their oratory skills for decades. Don’t just use those skills with clients, use them with your own associates. Just talk to us.
  2. Be available to talk. We shouldn’t have to email your assistant to schedule a meeting with you to talk about a case. Young attorneys have a ton of questions. As alike as we may be, our upbringing was different from yours. We have been encouraged to ask and ask and ask. It’s how we learn. Try to embrace our curiosity and willingness to ask—because, no, it doesn’t mean we’re lazy.
  3. If you wouldn’t say it to my face, don’t email it. If something is wrong, or irritates you, or the ball has been severely dropped, then just call us or scream our names to come into your office. Trust me, nothing stops productivity and prevents growth more than snarky emails from your boss in the office next door. See rule #1.
  4. I know I said three simple rules. But this one is so obvious that it shouldn’t even qualify to be a rule: Don’t drunk email. It’s not as bad as drunk driving, but it is embarrassing. Nothing will cause me to lose respect for you faster than a 1:30 a.m. drunken, rambling, misguided email about a motion that I did not prepare.

I may not know what I am talking about, but I think you understand.

Illustration ©istock

Categories: Communications Skills, Daily Dispatch, Law Firm Associates
Originally published September 14, 2011
Last updated February 28, 2024
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William Melater

William Melater is a young associate attorney working at a firm focused on commercial litigation and transactional work. A self-described legal hunter and gatherer, Bill has accumulated a plethora of legal certificates and diplomas—all of which have been appropriately framed and hung behind his desk. Bill has a distaste for emails, suspenders, fake tans, paralegals who cry, sea urchins and attorneys who repeat the phrase “this is my bottom-line offer.” When irked, Bill blogs about his experiences at Attorney at Work.

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