Using E-Mail for Attorney-Client Communication: Easy Shortcut or Wrong Turn?
by Dena Kleeman
(County Bar Update, June/July 2004, Vol. 24, No. 6)

 

Using E-Mail for Attorney-Client Communication: Easy Shortcut or Wrong Turn?

 

By Dena Kleeman, chair, Law Practice Management Section. Kleeman is a partner in the law firm of Kleeman.Kremen Family Lawyers in Beverly Hills. She is a frequent e-mail user and can be reached at dak@kleemanlaw.com. The opinions expressed are her own.

 

Most attorneys today communicate with clients via e-mail -- often at the request of the clients themselves. Our clients appreciate how quickly we respond to their inquiries. We save the added labor of fax cover sheets, postage meters, and the like.

 

But the ease with which we communicate with clients and prospects should also give us pause. Are we presenting ourselves as the careful, capable expert our clients expected to hire? And are we "maintaining inviolate" our clients' "confidences" in the e-mail process in accordance with the ethical mandates of our profession? (See Bus. & Prof. Code Sec. 6068(e)).

 

In presenting ourselves to clients via e-mail, are the messages edited for typos, run-on paragraphs, and muddled "thinking out-loud?" If we don't read our messages in hard copy before sending, too often they sound like a crude rough draft. E-mail messages, like other communications, are a marketing piece for your firm. If your client expects you to perform at the level of a careful professional, your e-mail messages should read like one.

 

You should also consider how easy or difficult it is for your client to respond to your e-mail messages. First, focus on the subject headline. Make sure that it is short and apropos, and that it readily identifies you. This will help assure it is read (and not mistaken for a potential e-mail virus.) If the headline is the message and no additional text is supplied in the message area, then let your client know. For example, use the abbreviation "NM" (No Message) in a headline such as "Confirming meeting for 5/21 at 6 p.m. - NM."

 

Keep the message short by pertaining to one or a few subjects. A busy client may not pay attention to a lengthier message, and your points may be lost. If the client uses a Blackberry device, it is particularly difficult to receive a lengthy message.

 

Close the e-mail with a "signature" that includes your telephone number at minimum. Your client may not have the opportunity to respond via e-mail and may appreciate having a telephone number handy.

 

E-mail presents new challenges to maintaining client confidentiality: It is easy to choose the wrong recipient from a lengthy e-mail address book. We all hear hacker horror stories, and even AOL and other service providers can access your e-mail messages. Double-check the recipient address before sending your e-mail into cyberspace.

 

At minimum, take the following additional precautions:

 

-- Before communicating with clients by e-mail, discuss the possibility of disclosure and obtain their (written) consent.

 

-- Always clarify if a client's e-mail address is work or personal. Often, clients provide a work e-mail address without considering that support staff may have access to their e-mail, and their employers undoubtedly have the right to read (and keep) their e-mail messages.

 

-- Make sure every e-mail from your office is prefaced with an admonition that it is CONFIDENTIAL ATTORNEY-CLIENT COMMUNICATION. In theory, if a recipient receives an e-mail message in error, it will be deleted before it is read.

 

-- To safeguard especially sensitive communications, consider e-mail encryption.  The added cost may be worth the privacy.

 

-- Consider whether landlines or in-person meetings are better for a particular communication. E-mail can be used to set up the meeting or telephone date, place, and other details, leaving the balance of the communication to the more secure venue.

 

With attention paid to our ethical obligations, e-mail can help us provide better service to our clients and become a positive marketing tool for our firm.

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