Cell Phone Etiquette for Attorneys (or anyone in fact)

In 1992, when I graduated from law school and began working in the “business world”, cell phones were not as ubiquitous as they are today.  In fact, my first cell phone was a true brick:  it was the size, shape, thickness and weight of a brick – carrying it in my pocketbook caused excruciating shoulder pain.  I used it only for emergencies. 

cell_phone 2Now I, like many people, cannot imagine being without my cell and have experienced mild panic attacks when I realize that I got into my car and my cell phone was not in my purse or on my person.  I have even turned around and driven back to my home to get it. 

The cell phone has made it possible for us to never be out of touch.  And now with Blackberrys and Smart Phones, we can call people whenever we want, E-mail, text, send updates to our status on FaceBook, tweet to our Twitter feed, take pictures, send pictures, watch video, listen to music.  

But with it comes a total lack of etiquette as well.  

I was recently on a New York City bound train at rush hour and couldn’t help overhearing the conversations of the people on their mobile devices.  Of course I couldn’t help it – for some reason, when people are on their phones they lose the ability to modulate their voice levels.  (It always reminds me of that scene in the first Austin Powers movie when they unfreeze the lead character who had been cryogenically frozen for 30 years.)

Now in this particular instance I was listening to someone speak of their Uncle Joe’s liver transplant and how this holiday season is going to be tough since he is not allowed to drink anymore.  What do you think?  Too Much Information?

This got me to thinking about Attorneys and their cell phone etiquette (or in some instances, lack thereof).  I have been at lunches where a phone call has interrupted a perfectly wonderful conversation.  Then, I sat there while my attorney client had a 10 minute conversation right in front of me.  It is important to add that there was nothing that I heard from their end of the conversation that couldn’t have been said at a later time.

So here are my Cell Phone Etiquette Rules:

First:  (Unless you are also a doctor or drug dealer, someone in your family is in the hospital or you have a child under the age of 15 at home) If you are in a meeting or at an appointment, there is no call that is that important that you have to take it at that second.  Now before I get yelled at in the comments section, if you are a criminal attorney and one of your clients has been arrested, then yes, that’s an important call.  And yes, emergencies do come up.

Almost everyone I know has a Caller ID function on their phone.  You know who is calling and whether that call is important.  If you don’t know who it is and for whatever reason cannot allow it to go to voicemail, then answer the call, inquire as to who it is, and tell them you will call them back shortly. 

However, for every other call there is this lovely invention called Voicemail.  Let your voicemail pick up the call.

Second:  If you do have to answer a call for whatever reason, excuse yourself from where ever you are at that moment and walk away.  There is no reason to carry on a conversation with someone sitting in front of you.   Not only is this rude, it makes the person who is sitting in that meeting feel unimportant.  And for goodness sake, make it as brief as you possibly can. 

When you return from the call, apologize to the person with whom you were meeting for interrupting “but that call could not wait.”   They need no other information, just an apology.

Third:  Cell phones have come a long way.  You no longer have to scream into the phone to be heard.  Learn to speak in a modulated voice.   For some reason, people are even worse with headsets (hands free devices) as they don’t think any one can hear them on the other end of the line.

This also leads to a very important point:  Attorney-Client Privilege.  We live in a world where “Six degrees of Separation” or the “Human Web” theory is alive and well.  You never know who is sitting next to you or who they know or who they follow on FaceBook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.   “Gossip” is spread at a much faster rate now than ever before.   A conversation over the cell phone with your client in a public place could breach your duty to your client if someone overhears something private.  Be very careful of your conversations to the people with whom you are speaking you could be violating ethics rules. 

Fourth:  Texting, tweeting, answering emails, surfing the web, or any other activity that is being conducted on a phone other than talking is just as rude as taking a call.  Again, there is nothing that cannot wait 30 minutes to an hour for your meeting to be over.

Attorneys who would become livid if their client was texting, tweeting or emailing away, or taking phone calls during their meetings think nothing of doing it to their clients. 

What are your thoughts on this?


  1. I recall a story where a HR person for a major law firm was openly discussing layoffs on the train, and folks tipped off the associates before said HR person was off the train…

  2. Jamie,

    Great rules to live by – I’m forwarding the link to several of my friends who need to know this.

    BTW, as a point of interest – I finally learned just why people speak so loud on cell phones. Unlike landlines, we can’t hear our voice through the earpiece so we speak louder. Doesn’t excuse the behavior, but at least it makes sense.

  3. Jaimie Field says

    Doug – I wasn’t aware of that particular point. But as you say, it doesn’t excuse the behavior 🙂

  4. Excellent posting. I thank you for posting that. I ask you accept my apology for my poor English writing, I am from France and it is kind of new to me.

  5. The information presented is top notch. I’ve been doing some research on the topic and this post answered several questions.

  6. Jaimie Field says

    Lenna and Anxiety Chat – thank you for your comments.

    Anxiety Chat: it’s really all about how you wish you would be treated when you are with others. If you don’t like when people ignore you to be on the phone, then don’t do it to others.


  1. […] an amazing coincidence, when I got back to my office, I ran across a blog post from Jaimie Field (Enlightened Rainmaking) I was recently on a New York City bound train at rush hour and couldn’t help overhearing the […]

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