Professional Ghosting in Law – Why It Happens and How to Tackle It

We have noticed a lot being written recently about professional ghosting. Though not necessarily a new phenomenon, the practice of ghosting – going suddenly silent after previously being communicative and interested in forging a partnership  – in the age of remote communication, appears to be becoming an increasing problem.

There’s no sugar coating it- in the vast majority of circumstances (the only exception being where the relationship is toxic and bullying in nature and the ‘ghoster’ has no other choice but to cut all communication) ghosting is extremely inconsiderate and comes as a complete shock – however, it is important to understand the circumstances that may have led to the ghosting in order to handle it in a satisfactory manner and prevent a similar situation happening again.

Where Ghosts Lurk

Prospective employers once were the prime ghosting culprits in the recruitment process – after exchanging emails and partaking in interviews for a job, with the promise of follow up and feedback left unfulfilled. Now it is an employer’s market, the tables have turned and some candidates are reportedly dropping employers without warning when something else comes their way.

The legal industry is not immune from professional ghosting; law firms will recognise the ghosting client, but lawyers themselves are also guilty of the practice. One commenter on a LinkedIn post on the topic says:

‘A prospective consultant was talking about ‘ghosting’ during our interview the other day. She mentioned that she had been approached about a few roles at very short notice because the lawyer assigned to the role had simply not turned up on day one!’ And in an even more extreme example earlier in 2018, a Nebraska lawyer was suspended for first being a no show in court, and then failing to appear at an OSC as to why they failed to show initially!

It is shocking for most of us to think that a professional might risk their reputation and future employment by behaving in this manner, but it may be more common than we suppose – as those on the receiving end of (and those who commit) professional ghosting are often embarrassed and reluctant to talk about it.

Why Professional Ghosting Happens

We can narrow down some of the possible underlying reasons why people ‘ghost’ in a professional context:

1. People like to talk, but don’t consider action

Communication on a possible working relationship often dries up when the other party realises the other person is serious about implementing what you have discussed. Networking events are ripe for people who want to talk ideas and potentials, but ultimately they may not have the resources or the conviction to follow through on every conversation. Their intentions at the time may feel genuine, but the embarrassment of not being able to meet your expectations may prevent them returning your calls. It’s all too easy to be overly earnest, but learn to filter through the bravado, and create genuine, human first connections with people who really want to give their time and receive your input.

2.  Fear of conflict

Some people are so focused on pleasant interactions, they avoid the inevitable negative interactions altogether. This can happen at all levels – no one enjoys the difficult conversations, but they need to be had to avoid leaving someone out in the cold. Unanswered questions can lead to a long lasting knock on a person’s confidence in their ability and demeanor, so it is always preferable to get things out in the open and allow the individual the opportunity to heal and improve.

3. Bad organisational structures

A lack of response may be down to communications getting ‘lost’ along the organisational chain of command, so it is always worth following up with more than one contact in relation to your enquiry before giving up the ghost. However, you should ask yourself if you really want to continue to invest your valuable time in an organisation that does not invest in their interpersonal relationships.

4. An inability to say ‘No’

Similar to those who fear conflict, people who feel they must say yes to every opportunity may find themselves so overwhelmed by commitments, that they simply bury their head hoping a lack of answer will be enough to tell the other person they are no longer available. Recognising the limits of our time and making smarter choices, instead of trying to do as much as possible is better for both wellbeing and career – overcommitting and failing to follow up can damage a reputation irreversibly.

When Ghosting Isn’t Real

Sometimes what is initially construed as ghosting is simply a difference in expectation of the level of communication, and this can often occur between lawyer and client. It’s very important to manage expectations and be clear about your role, your workload and other clients and pay structure (e.g. reminding them that each phone call/email is costing them), otherwise frustration can occur on both sides which may lead to communication breaking down altogether.

How To Recover From A Ghosting Encounter

Ghosting is not just confounding and hurtful, it can reflect very poorly on your future job chances. “Ghosting is the result of poor character – I don’t think that people who are well behaved ghost,” says Dana Denis-Smith, CEO of Obelisk Support. “I feel that there are a lot of excuses but ultimately, it comes down to not doing to others what you wouldn’t want others to do to you.”

The only way forward is to send a final ‘closure’ note and draw a line under the experience. It’s an act unlikely to elicit the response you seek, but it at least allows you to regain some control of the situation. You can choose to politely accept that they are no longer interested in communicating with you and wish them well for the future, or – if you feel that there may be still some hope of response – let them know you are open to their feedback on why they no longer felt able to continue the communication, whenever they feel ready to give it.

Ultimately, the underlying common denominator in ghosting is communication – be it a mutual lack of connection, or inability or neglect by one party, avoiding communication breakdown in working relationships will keep the ghosts at bay.