Communicating like it's 1876: The continuing importance of telephone skills for lawyers

  • April 02, 2020
  • Shawn Erker with content contributions from Deborah Glatter and Sandra Forbes

When the Western Union Telegraph Co. famously declined to purchase the telephone patent from Alexander Graham Bell, it was allegedly because they wondered why anyone would want to use such a frivolous and impractical device when a clear and concise written message could just as easily be sent by telegraph.

This assessment seems less absurd today than it once did. For younger generations, communicating by telephone is quickly becoming an anachronism—the “phone” component of smartphones a vestigial relic.

One recent study found that 73 per cent of millennial employees primarily use email to communicate at work, while only 19 per cent still primarily use a telephone. With less telephone usage, our comfort with the device can fade and our skills can atrophy—leading to anxiety and lack of confidence. Another study found that 81 per cent of millennials sometimes feel like they have to summon the courage to make a phone call.

But despite the changing ways we communicate with one another in the modern world, the legal profession is still a place where the ability to confidently and successfully communicate and negotiate by phone is a fundamental skill. Communication breakdowns and misunderstandings cause close to 47 per cent of malpractice claims.

In the article below, two experts—Deborah Glatter, a management consultant for various Bay Street firms who previously led Cassels Brock’s professional development department and worked with the Law Society of Ontario designing and teaching the bar admission course for new lawyers, and Sandra Forbes, a partner at Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP with 27 years of experience as a commercial and civil litigator—provide their thoughts on when phone calls should be preferred and the bad telephone habits they often see in the legal profession.