The Sound of Silence
Sometimes Less is More
by Becky Bye
Simon and Garfunkel wrote songs about it. Alice Walker, Confucius, and many other notable figures also commented on it — the art of silence. My favorite advocate of this virtuous habit is Mark Twain, who once stated, "It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt." Surely, Twain’s insight on silence and choosing words carefully was in reference to barely legal lawyers, such as yours truly.
After much introspection about some habits that I should curtail early in my legal career, I decided to address the topic of silence and brevity, particularly in regard to young or new lawyers.
Lawyers are not known for their silence or silent behavior. Many lawyers talk too much, write verbosely, draft excessive e-mails, or possess other habits that invade the senses, like overusing BlackBerries and cell phones.
Young lawyers should remember that there is an art to exemplifying one’s self, professionally and personally. One good example is "Reply to All" e-mails. Unfortunately, this option in Microsoft Outlook can be a plague for young and seasoned lawyers alike. Young lawyers must remember that a "Reply to All" or even a "Reply" can be detrimental to one’s career and reputation. I have witnessed very personal "Reply to All" e-mails meant for one individual, as well as people striving for attention, by sending an inappropriate, off-color, or offensive "Reply to All" in what the sender perceives as a funny joke.
A notable experience that triggered me to write about silence deals with my iPod. Although iPods are normally made for one person’s ears only, early in my career, I acquired iPod speakers for my office to use when I take a timeout from work. Unfortunately, one day I turned on my iPod and left the room to grab coffee. As I walked toward the other side of the building, I suddenly heard a rap song blaring, the bass practically shaking the floor. Once I realized it came from my office, I quickly ran back to turn it off, but the damage was done. That day, I received many strange looks from my office neighbors for my lack of silence. Since then, I use personal headphones for music in my office.
Other instances where less is more in terms of words or sounds include interactions with opposing counsel. In my experience with civil litigation, I have observed lawyers engaging in correspondence with opposing counsel that is extremely uncivil. Written letters often are used as a bitter prose of personal insults rather than as an effective medium to advocate on a client’s behalf. Appearances in court quickly can turn into bickering personal attacks between lawyers, rather than appearances to represent clients. Perhaps, when interacting with opposing counsel, lawyers should spend more time thoughtfully listening to each other and the legal arguments instead of launching personal assaults.
Besides the context of e-mails, technology and opposing counsel, a young lawyer should constantly be cognizant that words — or sounds — sometimes can be more harmful than helpful. Making too much noise or using too many words is a good way to expose a young lawyer’s inexperience, thoughtlessness, lack of tact or tendency to ramble.
Speaking of rambling, my goal was to make this short and sweet. Please enjoy the sounds of my silence — at least until next month’s Barely Legal.
Becky Bye is an attorney at Holland & Hart. To reach her, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.