Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : September 2010

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SOLO/SMALL FIRM PRACTITIONER

The MSBA first offered Section and Committee e-mail discussion lists to its members in 1999 – eons ago in the digital world. I have been on all of those e-mail discussion lists since the beginning and it has been an educational experience. I have watched them go from being rarely used to becoming a real help for practitioners in all practice settings. As with all new technologies, there are pros and cons tothese lists.

This month’s column is going to address two recent discussions on one of the MSBA’s e-mail discussion lists. The first, “Communicating Socially and Professionally in the 21st Century: Communication Manners Do Not Change, Only Communication Methods”, is a reminder about the “rules” for using the e-mail discussion lists and other social media.

A few weeks ago, there were some discussions on two or three of the lists that caused some concerns among many of the list participants. After asking for everyone to take a breath (my answer to many problems), I spent some time contemplating why we think the rules for communicating electronically are different from the rules for communicating face to face.

Much has been written and discussed about this phenomenon, and I am not going to rehash the theories. Nor am I going to say that the airways have become nastier and coarser, because I am not really sure if that is true. (Here is an interesting article from 2007 at Salon.com on “Minding Your Manors Online”: www.salon.com/news/opinion/kamiya/2007/11/13/manners/print.html.)

What I am going to discuss is how you benefit from playing nice and being nice and following the rules and why it is important to your practice that we adhere to the same manners we were taught as children. We increasingly live in a “what’s in it for me?” world, and there are many more advantages to displaying good manners than from behaving badly.

Before we had e-mail and other electronic communication tools such as Facebook and Twitter, most of our communication was either done face to face or by correspondence that took some time to create and review. Most of our communications were done with those we generally knew and most often could actually see. Even if we communicated or spoke to a large group of people, we could see and/or sense their reactions.

This is no longer the case with electronic communications. When we use e-mail or Facebook or other types of electronic comments, we do not see the people with whom we are communicating, and in many instances we do not even know who is actually listening to our conversations.

Most practitioners, especially solo and small firm practitioners, build and expand their practices through referrals with other practitioners, clients and others based upon their reputation. This reputation includes more than just being a good lawyer. Most of the people reading this are good lawyers. Many referrals are made and received because of personal relationships we have with other lawyers.

Relationships and reputations are made not just in person but now online and electronically. Others’ perceptions of us are formed by how we act and react, not just in person but online as well. When you reply to a question on an e-mail discussion list or make a comment to another person on the list, you are making an impression not only on people you do not know but on people you do not even know are on the e-mail discussion list.

The rule for sending e-mail messages used to be “Don’t post anything you do not want to see on the company bulletin board.” We should now add to that, “Do not reply in a way that you would not talk to your mother.” Even if you “win” the argument or make your point, you still can lose if others on the list think less of you or are disturbed by your rudeness.

This is not a case against vigorous debate and discourse. It is a case against rudeness. Your practice depends upon your good manners. Make your mother proud.

Tips on How to Use the MSBA E-mail Discussion Lists

Most of the MSBA 27 Sections have e-mail discussion lists that include all (or almost all) of the Section members. Members may “opt out” at any time. They may also rejoin at any time as long as they are Section members. The MSBA provides these e-mail discussion lists as a benefit to its members, for the purpose of facilitating communication between members of the various Committees and Sections. The e-mail discussion lists are to be used only for the discussion of related MSBA issues or other legal-related discussions. This allows members who are subscribed to the list the opportunity to type in one address and send the message/question to everyone on the list. These lists have proved extremely valuable to both new and experienced practitioners. In order to get the best results from using these lists, there are some rules that you need to understand and use. The e-mail discussion lists have been valuable to many Sections, and there have been few problems. Like any group, electronic or otherwise, each list has its own “personality”.

The e-mail discussion lists are self-regulated, which means no one, neither an MSBA member nor an MSBA staff person, is monitoring and/or moderating the discussions. There are few staff members on the list for administrative and technical reasons, but most do not have time or inclination to read any of the posts. Although I am on all of the e-mail discussion lists, I do not read all of the posts. I often can get a feel about when there might be a problem and try to let the e-mail discussion list work it out, but, on rare occasions, I will step in to calm the discussion. I will never insult or call out any member of any list publically.

If at any time, you feel that someone on a list is causing a problem or being rude, please contact me directly and I will speak to that person directly.

Other tips which might help:

  • Sarcasm is lost in e-mail messages. What you may mean to be funny is often lost in translation.
  • Emotions or abbreviations can help a little. If you are trying to be funny, then use the emoticon for smiling, :). If someone gets annoyed (or worse), you can always say that you told everyone you were joking.

An even better rule is if you need to use an emoticon, maybe you should reword the message.

Nobody likes an instigator. Do not intentionally make comments that you know will annoy others on the list. Nothing is gained.

It is not necessary to get into every discussion. Sometimes it really is better to say nothing. Some of the most well-respected members of lists are those that never associate with being in the middle of an unpleasant discussion.

If there are people on some lists from whom you want to receive no comments or information, learn how to set up a rule to either block that person or have his/her messages sent directly to your Deleted Folder.

Finally, if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging and go back to work.

All the e-mail discussion list rules are available online at www.msba.org/sec_comm/lists/rules.htm. Please take a few minutes to review them. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact me directly at0 pyevics@msba.org or (800) 492-1964, ext. 3039.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: September 2010

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