Building Bridges, Making
Professionalism in the Digital Age
By Tom Kranovich
For many years, before it was fashionable to have one, Clackamas County Circuit Court Judge Dale Jacobs was my mentor. While I could dedicate an entire article to the benefits of being his mentee I will limit myself to the one pearl of Dale’s wisdom that has been the most helpful to me: “When you meet a lawyer for the first time, you have a chance to make a new friend.”
Since taking office it has been my pleasure to attend, with OSB Executive Director Sylvia Stevens, almost weekly lunch meetings at different law firms. Luncheons between the bar’s executive director, the OSB president and Oregon law firms have been part of the executive director’s and the president’s job description for decades. The purported purpose of these meetings is to build on prior relationships and continue the dialogue between the board and our members. But, for me, they are much more.
Having been a member of the legal community since 1979, when I started clerking for Judge Jacobs, it is unusual if I do not know at least one person at every luncheon that I attend. I use these relationships to “break the ice” with everyone else. I enter the meeting knowing one to five people and leave knowing 10 to 20 more. I leave thankful for the inherent blessing that flows from the very old school ideas of personal contact and face to face interaction.
In 1964 I attended a high school assembly at which an “expert” told us that the efficiencies of automation would lead to more meaningful lives by making our jobs easier and providing us with increased leisure time. Alas, if it were only so. Automation and online communication make performing any given task quicker but there has been no increase in leisure time. Tasks that used to take two hours to complete now take less than one, leaving us with time to do two or more additional tasks. We now pack two to three times the work product into an eight to 10-hour day than we did 30 years ago.
The expectations placed on us are driven at the speed of email. It used to be that answering a letter within a few days or returning a phone call within 24 hours was acceptable. While it is not yet the norm, some people now become upset if their email is not answered within an hour of it being sent. All of this makes me wonder, how do we build friendships in a digital world, and is there still a place for face-to-face interaction in the developing practice model?
We are still a small enough bar that our actions come back to visit us. I know that the harder I hit the “enter” key in sending an email the more I will later regret the tone of the message. Have others had this experience? Should I, we, reflect more before responding to letters, emails and phone calls? Should our model be such that the tone of our communication moves the case forward without jeopardizing the friendships we are trying to establish or maintain? Do our actions consistently build trust for future dealings? When possible do we offer a plausible “out” or face-saving option to our recipient?
The answers, of course, are introspective. They lie more in the decisions we individually make and less on the rules we enact or the statements of practice that we endorse. Part of the OSB brand is our collective reputation for collegiality, but it will take more than decrees from the Board of Governors or the House of Delegates and more than presidential pontification for us to protect and nurture that aspect of our brand. True collegiality requires individual commitment to personal, civilized communication within a framework, I believe, of making and/or maintaining friendships. Collegiality further requires that we take time to attend bar functions and events at the state, county, local and section levels. It calls for each of us to personally get involved and stay informed lest we become individually isolated and unaware.
Impersonal but efficient electronic communication, while a boon to the bottom line, is a threat to collegiality and an obstacle to face to face relationships. Skype and Facetime, or their ultimate successors, may be an improvement over potentially soulless email and telephone messages, but I doubt that they will ever offer the level of camaraderie found in a face-to-face encounter made with a smile and firm handshake. Is the digital age conducive to a culture of high collegiality without professional friendships? I fear that it is not but submit we can keep its negative side under control by making a cross-cultural commitment to civility, friendship and face-to-face interaction.
I would appreciate your ideas on the role of friendship and face-to-face communication in the rapidly changing practice of law. Please contact me via firstname.lastname@example.org or, if you are willing to have a broader audience, by sending your comment or inquiry to me via the Bulletin, which always appreciates letters to the editor on thoughtful matters. It’s a broader discussion I would like to have. Either way, I will either answer your inquiry or get it into the hands of someone who can.
Every inquiry you send, or thought you share, is a chance for me to make a new friend
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
OSB President Tom Kranovich practices law in Lake Oswego. Reach him at email@example.com.