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December 14, 2006

Overusing E-mail Turns Clients Off

Connecticut Law Tribune - December 11, 2006

E-mail is a wonderful device to add to attorneys' arsenal of communication tools. Yet if this electronic interloper is overused, or used thoughtlessly, it can both disrupt and destroy the attorney-client relationship. E-mail must not be used in lieu of normal and necessary one-on-one communications between lawyers and their clients. It should only be used as an aid to that communication.

Attorneys who rely on e-mail to communicate with their clients because it is a more efficient use of their time should consider this interesting statistic: 50 percent of the time, recipients of e-mail will misinterpret the tone of the missive yet the recipient believes they have correctly interpreted the tone 90 percent of the time. Couple that statistic with the reality that, generally, e-mails lack the formality of the written letter.

Typically, when attorneys write a letter, they construct, reconstruct, edit and have others proof it for grammar and proper tone because the letter "goes into the client file." But the informal nature of e-mails combined with the likely misinterpretation of tone is just one way an e-mail can wreak havoc.

Consider the back-and-forth responses that involve cutting and pasting to make it easier to answer questions in the sender's e-mail. Then add the lag time between sending and responding, and the uncertainty of knowing whether the client has received an e-mail because they've ignored a request for an e-mail receipt. What you ultimately have is not a responsible give-and-take conversation with the client. Rather you have a long, drawn-out, potentially non-confidential, informal conversation, subject to misinterpretation of tone, numerous distractions, coffee breaks, and the likelihood that neither the sender or the receiver correctly understood what the other was attempting to say. Yet, e-mails are being used more and more by lawyers to maintain ongoing communications with their clients.

To some clients, using e-mail communication almost exclusively can be construed as an attempt to avoid them. Clients may take that as a message to find legal counsel elsewhere, to get the personal connection they are entitled to.

So, how is this tool used effectively to accommodate clients' requests — and lawyers' busy schedules — while maintaining a comfortable relationship with the client without sacrificing professionalism? For solos, it's a challenge because they are generally one person being pulled in multiple directions.

First, establish policies regarding the use of e-mails. Every retention agreement should have the client acknowledging these policies. Discern if they share a computer or if their e-mail is password protected, and write into the retainer letter the authorized e-mail address, only changing that e-mail address when informed in writing by the client. Tell them how often you check and respond to e-mails. Require they acknowledge receipt of e-mails. If they do not acknowledge with an electronic return receipt, you must assume it wasn't received.

Create a policy that all e-mails with attached documents are sent for the clients' convenience but will be followed up with a hard copy. Let the client know e-mail is inherently vulnerable to hacking and that confidentiality may be compromised (but you are responsible for negligent or intentional breaches.)

Write every e-mail as if it was a formal letter to your client. Have your appropriate disclaimers. But here is a trick I use — never fill in the "To" line until you have a finished product. You don't want to accidentally send an incomplete or incorrect e-mail to your client or any confidential e-mail to the wrong party. Always offer the client the opportunity to speak directly on the telephone if they have any questions, the same as you do in your formal client letters.

Remember, an e-mail can be saved and copied, read by another, but with one glaring difference: it can be disseminated throughout the world within seconds. Do not avoid talking with your client by overusing e-mails. Clients don't appreciate it. When they need to talk with their lawyer, they are deserving of an actual conversation in real time. •

Susan Cartier-Liebel is solo practitioner, adjunct professor at Quinnipiac University School of Law and a business consultant for solo and small firms. She can be reached at SCartier_Liebel@comcast.net. Copyright © Susan Cartier-Liebel (2006) All Rights Reserved. No portion of this material may be copied, transmitted, posted, duplicated or otherwise used without the express written approval of Susan Cartier-Liebel.

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