Common Mistakes Lawyers Make Sending Emails

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Lawyers, like everyone else, make mistakes in how they use email. Some email mistakes become horror stories, while others are just embarrassing. The following are nine common mistakes that attorneys make when writing and sending emails.

Sent From the Desk of (Insert Name)

 From time to time I'll get an email from a lawyer who sends out an email in the name of his desk. Here are a couple of problems with that approach to email.

First, the Inbox display index of most email systems won't display a name that long. Most people will only see some portion of "from the desk of," and maybe a few letters of the person's first name. More importantly, it seems silly and a bit pretentious. A desk doesn't send emails. If a lawyer is going to send out an email, it should be in his or her name.

Fancy Effects

Some lawyers love to get creative with the appearance of their emails. The other day I saw a lawyer's signature block and for a moment I thought I was having vision problems. Turns out that the blurry letters were intentional. Special effects may look entertaining, but anything that makes the words hard to read is a bad idea. Especially if what is hard to read is the lawyer's name and email address.

Even worse than the special effects on the letters is when lawyers clutter their emails with artwork or fancy graphics. This makes the message slower to download, slower to open, and more of a hassle to read.

The goal of an email is to communicate information, not artistic skill. Keep it simple.

No Signature Block

It isn't that hard to set up an automatic signature block in most email systems. It doesn't have to be complicated, and opinions vary as to how much information to include in a signature block. Some lawyers turn their email footers into mini-commercials that go out in every email, while others take a very minimalist approach with just their name and email address or phone number.

Most put some kind of privacy notice or legal disclaimer at the bottom of the footer. All of these are acceptable uses of an email signature block. What isn't acceptable is to send out emails that don't identify the sender. The recipient of an email shouldn't have to guess who sent the email. Lawyers should clearly identify themselves in every communication they send out, and if the lawyer is smart the email will include a privacy notice too.

Writing Emails While Angry

One of the benefits of the old system of sending letters to people was that there was a built-in "cooling off" period between when a letter would be written and when it would actually go out to the recipient. If the lawyer typed the letter himself, it would still be likely to sit around on a table for several hours before going to the post office. If it was dictated, by the time the secretary finished typing it up the lawyer may have gotten over what made him so angry in the first place.

That protection doesn't exist in email. With an email, the lawyer can fire off an angry missive within seconds of what triggered the anger. 99.99% of the time this will be a bad idea. No one thinks clearest when being driven by anger. Go do something else, and come back to the offending issue later when some of the anger has dissipated.

It could make the difference between keeping or losing clients, friends, and money.

Not Making Timely Responses

Some attorneys feel that the old "5-day rule" for responding to business correspondence also applies to email. It doesn't. No matter how inconvenient it may be, the reality is that people expect faster responses to an email than they do to a letter sent through the mail. If a client or another attorney sends an email, try to reply within 24 hours if at all possible. If it is a complicated matter that can't be given proper attention at the moment, at least send an acknowledgment and let the person know when to expect a response. Most clients will appreciate a friendly message that says the email was received and will be responded to in the near future. In the face of silence, the client is left to speculate as to whether the lawyer even got the email, whether a response is on the way, or whether the client's concerns are simply being ignored.

Wrong recipient in the To field

One of the great things about the auto-complete function on email systems is that it lets lawyers find the email addresses of their clients or colleagues more quickly. One of the risks of the auto-complete function is that a lawyer who isn't careful could send the email to the wrong person. In some instances, this could be no more than a minor embarrassment, but in some instances, it could amount professional negligence. Don't accidentally e-mail confidential client communications to opposing counsel or even to another client.

Using the "Reply All" option.

Opposing counsel sends an email to you with a proposal or asserting his position on an issue. You forward the email to the other attorneys in your firm involved with the case to discuss it. Soon the "reply all" button is being liberally used, with no one noticing that opposing counsel is getting copied on the internal discussion at your firm. It happens. If you want to forward an email for discussion, strip out the sender's information before forwarding it. And, whenever using that Reply All option, check each email address in the recipient list before hitting send.

8. Sloppy subject lines. Remember that anything sent to another lawyer in an email could be forwarded to anyone else. Think twice before using subject lines such as "my idiotic client" or "stupid judge's order." One never knows where a copy of that email may land. Also, don't leave subject lines blank, as that may cause another lawyer to not notice there is an email about your case. A simple subject line of "Parkerson case" or "Smith proposed agreement" or whatever title is relevant to the content of the email works best.

And while "idiotic client" may be the most accurate description of the contents of the email, it is a poor choice for the subject line.

9. Watch your tone -- and don't misread someone else's. When people speak to each other face to face, facial cues and vocal tones usually make a person's intent clear. On telephone calls, a person's voice is usually enough to be able to tell when someone is being sarcastic, joking, or serious. But in email, it is dangerously easy to completely misread a person's intent. Numerous friendships have been damaged by one person misreading another person's intent in statements in an email. And with lawyers so used to arguing with each other already, it is easy for an attorney to be quick to assume that the other person is being hostile or rude.

As discussed under "writing email while angry," take a few minutes to cool off before sending out a response to that jerk's email.

After an hour passes, you may realize that you completely misread it in the first place. Don't have a hair-trigger response to statements made in emails, and don't fire off a response until considering whether it is possible the sender had a different intent than it initially appeared. If it seems that a statement could be read in more than one way, and one of those ways is non-offensive, try giving the sender the benefit of the doubt before cutting off his head with a deadly email missive.

Are there other lawyer email mistakes that should have made the Top 10 list? Tell us about it in the Forum.