Rethinking e-mail

Marty Dolan, principal at Dolan Law and his associate Karen Munoz represent victims of wrongful death and personal injury. His column “Law and Wellness,” appears in the Chicago Lawyer and her column appears regularly in the Law Bulletin. This week’s column is written by Karen Munoz.

I was reading recently about how social networking sites are changing the way we live and how they’re here to stay. In fact, the article made the point that it was usurping e-mail in some ways and pointed to the fact that some universities no longer give students individual e-mail accounts and opt to communicate with students via social media instead. This got me thinking about how lawyers use e-mail. While I don’t think e-mail is going to be replaced as the primary means of communication for lawyers anytime soon, whether it’s with clients, co-workers or other attorneys, I do believe that many of us could benefit from rethinking the way we use e-mail.

E-mails Can Be Open to Misinterpretation

Tone can be very difficult to convey in an e-mail. We get so many e-mails in a day that we can’t devote much time to answering every single one of them as thoroughly as we would when responding to a letter, for example. But we shouldn’t just fire out e-mails without taking a few seconds to read over them. We have to be very careful in a professional setting not to appear to be criticizing or pontificating but this can easily happen if we shoot out responses quickly without thinking. And a misinterpreted e-mail can aggravate an already contentious relationship, or even sour a good one. So we should be clear, concise and conscious of the tone.

They Can Come Back to Bite Us

Another reason we should take care when sending e-mails is the fact that we might see them again in a discovery motion. An e-mail is a written, and often self-explanatory, record of what a party said so we should always be on our guard not to say anything that we might later regret.

I was involved in a case recently where one of the parties had sent an e-mail that included the sentence “this is our fault”. However, what the party meant to say was “this is not our fault”. It was an honest typo and didn’t have any impact on the case but it shows that even a typo could easily affect the outcome of a dispute. And if a typo can do it then a deliberately cold or acrimonious message certainly can.

Sometimes It’s Better to Use the Phone

While none of us would get anything done if everybody suddenly decided to start calling instead of using e-mail, sometimes it is worthwhile to attempt to advance a matter over the phone. It does largely avoid the potential pitfall of misinterpreting someone’s tone or conveying the wrong tone ourselves. I’m sure we’ve all been in a situation where we’re working on something complicated and someone sends an e-mail with a question that’s unclear and someone else responds to what they thought was being asked and the net result is confusion and time wasted.

This could be avoided by a phone call. It’s easier to ask someone to clarify something they said as the call goes along so it helps avoid miscommunication. And people appreciate the personal touch sometimes too.



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