The New Human Touch

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“You need to get me your revisions to this agreement as soon as possible, because starting on Thursday I will be in the Sonoran Desert where I will not have service.” Opposing counsel on a matter issued this command to me on a blustery Chicago Monday morning. He reiterated the sentiment over the next couple of days, and I worked dutifully and assiduously, picturing him on a camel crossing caramel colored shifting sands, his smart phone one hump back and anyway unreadable through the grit. After he mentioned it the third time, I looked up the Sonoran Desert. Maybe it’s by the Sahara?

It turned out he was going to Tucson for the winter. Where they have computers. And internet.

This was pre-pandemic, and admittedly my geography needs work, but he was a pioneer of sorts. In an era of ever-connectedness, he had decided, and communicated to me, that he was going to disconnect.

As the pandemic has blurred the lines between working and non-working hours, between home and office, the problem of finding ways to communicate that we need to – and are going to – disconnect, has only gotten more challenging, particularly when our computers and laptops are just in the other room. The breaks attorneys and clients alike used to have are no longer built in. No more of the once-dreaded commute, for instance, to serve as a transition of sorts between home and work. (The rear view mirror looks better, as it turns out, in the rear view.) We’re all having to catch up to my opposing counsel’s savvy. For lawyers, though, and others in the service industry, it can be harder to disconnect, as we balance the need for someone to be constantly available to clients with our need for breaks to recharge.

One way that we are starting to see attorneys and clients carve out space is via their out-of-office messages. With many of us still out of our offices, these messages now serve a new purpose. No longer the rote and formulaic auto-responses of yore whose sole function was to communicate that you would not be immediately responsive and whom they should contact in your stead, out-of-office messages now offer up tales of family time, health concerns, and lifestyle choices. They serve as front line security for protecting personal time. So as we play the roles of chef, home school teacher, waiter, nurse, mediator and soother-of-bumps and heartaches, all while practicing law and providing the absolute best service to our clients, we grapple with professional ways to explain why we are home but away from our connected devices.

A colleague received an out of office message recently from opposing counsel that said that she was “spending time with family” and would respond when available to do so. Vacation alerts come bearing a return date, and a promise to respond when back in front of a computer, and not sooner. One particularly creative lawyer’s out-of-office message informed recipients that she was out of the office getting vaccinated and provided links to convenient places in her county to get the vaccine. I’ve even received reports of others putting information in their signature blocks that they are emailing at a time that works for them and only expect you to respond at a time that works for you.

As we start to see more such messages, I think we are finding, and will continue to find, that this much-needed humanization serves as a connection point in a time when we are lacking connection. I have found that these messages open the door to chats about our fears, our sorrows, our funny moments and our housemate’s foibles. Your dog is barking in the background, too? Hey! What kind of dog?! It allows us to connect with clients and opposing counsel in new ways, as we share our struggles and our days and the ways we all make life and work, well, work. And that, together with serving the clients we love in the diligent way we always have and want to continue, is, as it turns out, what the new professional looks like.

Penelope Campbell is a real estate partner in Honigman LLP's Chicago office.

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