September 18, 2014

Five tips for lawyers on preventing email catastrophe

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A recent article in Solicitors Journal soberly warned of the dangers of misusing email on office time (and indeed out of it). It’s a timely warning: never in the field of human communications has so much been seen by so many, which was intended for so few.

Most of us have surely fired off some exasperated remark about a Brentish boss or useless colleague. The cold sweat that kicks in before the mouse has quite finished clicking SEND is almost as fixed a feature of office life as a permanently empty water cooler and a busted photocopier.

Almost always a shamefaced apology or grovelling note will smooth over the awkwardness, but there are times when an unwise email doesn’t so much touch a nerve as detonate several tonnes of plastic explosive.

And so, in the interests of furthering world peace, here are our top five tips for avoiding email catastrophe.

1. Keep Your Cool

The legal profession is one in which a passionate temperament and a sharp tongue will often stand you in good stead. But fail to combine these with a cool head, and the consequences can be disastrous.

In 2007, two US law firms merged to form legal titan Dewey and LeBoeuf. Its financial worth was staggering: in a single year one lawyer alone billed over $10 million dollars.

But all was not well in the senior ranks, and when one senior partner was passed over for chairmanship he did not take the afternoon off to vent his feelings over a soothing round of golf, but fired off a vitriolic email setting out precisely what he thought of colleagues. The missive contains blistering insults of which ‘little prick’ is the most suited to a delicate reader.

The result? A chain of events ending in the collapse of one of the largest law firms in the States. It filed for bankruptcy, leaving more than $300 million in debt. Even the janitors went unpaid.

2. Use ‘Reply All’ wisely

One day, a software designer will come up with an email package which sounds a deafening siren if your cursor approaches the ‘reply all’ button. Until that time, triple-checking whether you are replying to one respondent or potentially the entire firm will stand you in good stead.

When one Jonas L Blank failed to heed this advice, his doleful assessment of his career was shared with more than 1,000 colleagues. “Why are we still at this firm?” he mourned to a colleague, going on to boast of his boredom,  unaware the recipient box was showing ‘List/Attorney/All’ (at which point one wonders whether he really should have gone to Specsavers).

One can only imagine the sinking feeling that ensued when shortly after a polite response came from a distant colleague: “Sorry to interrupt….”

3. Keep It Clean

Really, one would think it would hardly need saying. But we humans are a lusty species, and never more so than when cooped in offices boiling over with frustration and intrigue.

When it comes to work correspondence, it is not enough to ponder the old adage, “How would I feel if the entire firm were to see this email?” Rather, you should ask, “Would I want my mother to read it?”

Examples of salacious correspondence putting a swift end to promising careers are numerous, and in most cases infinitely too juicy to replicate. Email security programmes and firewalls can be effective at filtering out the more lurid vocabulary, but cannot be relied on.

One of the most disastrous (and most printable) examples comes courtesy of Deloitte, where one bored young analyst passed a slow afternoon by rating the attractiveness of her male colleagues. In an email innocuously headed “Deloitte first year analysts Christmas awards”, she invited staff to vote in a number of categories including “boy most likely to sleep his way to the top” and “most attractive senior member of staff.”

Women readers may be permitted a wry grin at this delicious reversal of workplace misogyny, but nonetheless it was not considered suggestive of a professional and competent employee. The email went viral, and the analyst departed in disgrace.

4. Beware Rumour

Something curious happens when we see something written down. Rumour and gossip which we’d scarcely give a second thought if overheard in a bar or taxi suddenly becomes noteworthy – and all too easy to pass on.

Corporate lawyers in particular must be wary of passing on information which has not been triple-checked, scrutinised, notarised, cross-examined and given Papal blessing, because in the world of finance a whisper becomes a bellow in no time at all.

Never has the power of an ill-advised email been more clear than in 2011, when a Citigroup trader sent an email speculating that financially stricken Greece would be aiming to restructure its debts by that weekend. The consequences were not embarrassment and a briefly curtailed career – but (so observers claimed) a further 4.6% wiped off already catastrophically failing Greek bank shares, and an interrogation by Interpol.

5. Hold Your Hands Up

The worst possible tactic when faced with a fumbled forward or calamitous ‘reply all’ is to ignore it – or, worse, fail to hold up your hands to your mistake. In a profession in which safeguarding the privacy of clients and the transparency of the legal process isn’t just a priority but a legal and regulatory obligation, acting swiftly to mitigate the error is essential.

Concerned you have compromised client confidentiality? Immediately seek out whoever in your firm is responsible for Data Protection matters, and act according to protocol. Spoken out of turn about colleagues either junior or senior? A frank and honest apology, both in person and by email, will mend many a broken fence (after all, almost everyone will have done something similar). It is worth bearing in mind that Jonas L Blank’s contrite apology apparently worked: still gainfully employed, he is reported to earn more than $2,000 dollars per week.

When it comes to email disasters, it may be horrifyingly easy to spark a fire – but act swiftly, and today’s catastrophe will be tomorrow’s anecdote. SP

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