Communication Breakdown

Professional use of OSB Listserv Technology

by Tom Noble, Oregon Legal Center and YLS Futures Committee

The OSB email Listservs are a tremendous tool and resource for both newer attorneys and seasoned practitioners. For a small yearly fee, an attorney can belong to any number of Listservs and be able to instantly access and engage a vast network of fellow practitioners for their collective resources and knowledge.

As more young attorneys struggle to find work, many are beginning to hang their own shingle. For many of these tech savvy entrepreneurs, Listservs will serve as a life-preserver and the growing reliance on this form of communication will surely cause them to grow in importance over time. Here are three things an attorney should always keep in mind when using any form of Listserv technology.

Use Caution When Posting
The rules of professionalism apply to Listserv communication. The Hon. John V. Acosta, a popular lecturer on professionalism, cautions attorneys that "[c]ommunication should be respectful not just during in-person exchanges but also when commenting over the Internet." He further adds that "in typical use, electronic communication is fast and leaves little time for deliberate reflection and objective self-editing." Remember that reputations are hard to build and easy to tear down.

Personal opinions on areas such as politics or religion are never appropriate on a listerve post. Even though the number of attorneys posting may seem small, each post is sent to every Listserv member. This audience will be quick to judge the attorney whose comments could be viewed as crass or offensive. The Listserv is a tool to access an online community and not a forum for a practitioner to voice personal opinions on areas unrelated to the practice of law.

Besides personal opinions, attempts at humor should be avoided. Judge Acosta argues that "communicating through one’s computer, laptop, iPad or other device, instead of talking to a person, brings an abstract quality to the discussion that allows us to forget that there are real people involved in the conversation." The abstract nature of electronic communication when sent to large body of diverse practitioners almost guarantees that your joke or funny comment will be found offensive by at least someone. In addition, be mindful of the fact that attorneys from all over the state, and not just the Portland Metro area, use the Listserv. As a general rule, Judge Acosta advises practitioners to "avoid posting any comment you would not be willing to make in-person to a group of respected colleagues."

Reply vs. Reply ALL
While some responses may be relevant to the entire group, many are better directed towards individual Listserv members. Judge Acosta suggests you "[T]hink about your own reaction to receiving posts (or emails) from others, the subject of which has nothing to do with you. If you tend to view those communications as disruptive, annoying, or thoughtless, then there is a high probability that others will similarly view your "reply all" post that concerns only a particular member." Before sending your response to the entire group, consider whether your post would be of interest to all Listserv members.

Protect Client Confidentiality
A common area of posting involves throwing out a hypothetical to the other Listserv members seeking help on an issue involving his or her client. When such help is sought, avoid disclosure of unnecessary background information. If disclosure is necessary, do so in an individual email and not on the Listserv. In many cases, a simple request for a referral will suffice.
While the Listservs are incredibly useful to the practice of law, they should be used responsibly. Remember that once a message has been sent, it cannot be retrieved. Your postings to colleagues are an extension of your professional self. Be respectful and you will likely be respected.