Courtly Manners

Courtly Manners

A lesson in business etiquette on when to pick up the phone

By Crystal Rockwood, president of Rockwood Communications Counsel in Seal Beach (, which provides crisis communications, reputation management, and business etiquette services for law firms and businesses.

Managing partners see it every day: A young attorney is corresponding with a key client by email, and things start to get tense. Then, instead of picking up the phone to call the client, the attorney fires off even more messages trying to explain his or her position. Meanwhile, the client’s responses become icier.

Delivering painful or delicate news via email or text message can be risky. When a client opens a message, there is no reassuring voice or facial expression to clarify intent. Throw in jokes or sarcasm (which are typically lost in translation anyway), and you’re likely adding insult to insult.

Even seasoned attorneys can make the same misjudgments, so many firms are taking preventive action. Here are a few signs that you need face time or a telephone chat:

– The subject of the exchange is sensitive, or has the potential to escalate.
– Communications shift from addressing facts to opinion or critique.
– Messages become strained or abrupt; a coolness permeates the conversation and the usual pleasantries are forgone.

Like insurance, a telephone conversation can go a long way toward protecting your client relationship. And when you hang up the conversation is over, whereas an email can live forever.

A good rule of thumb for email: When in doubt, don’t send it out; pick up the phone.