Vail Daily column: Do not text your lawyer
Ryan Summerlin January 20, 2013
My last article extolled the virtues of a vigorous and honest dialogue between attorney and client. Such communication serves a critical function. However, the efficacy of that function depends largely on its form. Undoubtedly, new technologies and platforms allow for exchanges of ideas that are quicker and easier than ever before. But in the legal world, quicker and easier is not a proxy for better. In fact, the more established means of communication such as the telephone and email (or, gasp! in-person meetings) are far more conducive to effective legal communication.To best advocate for their client, lawyers need to know details and explore nuances. Successful attorney-client communication is therefore both thoughtful and expansive. These are not the adjectives that usually best describe text messaging, Facebook posting, instant messaging or tweeting. The logistics of these mediums prevent only but the most curt missives. But more than that, the informal nature of these modes of communication impacts the psychology of the user. Grammar and spelling are relaxed to a horrifying degree and the thoughts often follow this sloppy lead. This is communication at its most base and primal level, the modern-day equivalent of our Neanderthal forebears’ grunt and head nod. These newfangled communication tools not only fail to allow the lawyer’s and client’s ideas to shine, but they have other limitations that can subvert the ends of the attorney-client relationship. Instant messaging in particular encourages unrealistic expectations regarding response times. It is difficult, if not impossible, to intake a complex legal question, process it and meaningfully respond within a few seconds. Yet our use of instant messaging in other, more personal contexts has trained us to demand these lightning-quick results in a way that a telephone or email conversation does not.Tweeting information at your attorney or posting ideas on your lawyer’s Facebook wall destroys the beloved attorney-client privilege by disclosing the information to third parties outside of the protected relationship. This can have seriously negative and potentially dispositive consequences for your case. Forcing your attorney to type a response on his phone to a five-part text message is frustrating for the lawyer and costly for you due to the inefficiencies inherent in lacking a true keyboard. Text or instant messages cannot be easily and reliably archived, so it is hard to find that important information at a later time. Due to these issues and because one cannot convey any meaningful information to an attorney through a text or post or IM, these methods are best reserved for confirming meeting times or somesuch, if used in the legal context at all.I am admittedly a bit of a traditionalist/Luddite, but I am not suggesting that you contact your attorney only via telegraph or smoke signals. Contextually useful modern tools do exist. Certainly, a good old-fashioned face-to-face chat with your lawyer is the best way to delve deeply into the topics at hand. Merely being in each other’s presence creates a stronger psychological bond and allows each party to read the other’s non-verbal cues. But technology can be a boon in this arena. Videoconferencing and Skype allows one to capture most of these advantages without having to incur significant travel costs. The ubiquity and relatively low cost of mobile telephones allows for in-depth, exploratory conversations without having to be physically present in the office. While stories of client calls on the chairlift may be mostly apocryphal, the ability to make effective legal communication location-independent is incredibly useful.Email has transformed the practice of law in a mostly positive way. Expectations on response times may still be somewhat unrealistic, but email provides efficient and nimble communication while still allowing space and time to craft a thorough and contemplative communique. Email also allows for instant transfer of documents, even those created in hard copy when combined with a scanner. The attorney-client relationship must be nurtured with great care and I believe that texting/tweeting/posting/IMing is flawed for that purpose. You and/or the younger generation may disagree. One matter upon which I hope we can all agree is that fax machines are terrible. If I wanted to listen to annoying sounds as a prerequisite to viewing blurry images, I would watch reality TV with my glasses off.T.J. Voboril is a partner with Thompson, Brownlee & Voboril LLC, a local civil litigation firm. For more information, contact Voboril at 970-306-6456 or email@example.com, or visit www.thompsonbrownlee.com.