How Dewey Use Email?
I wish I could take full credit for the ingenuity of that title, but I have to confess that I am riding the wave of using the name Dewey (as in the defunct Dewey & LeBoeuf, LLP, New York) to stand for “Do we” as everyone in the legal blogosphere did a while back when criminal charges were filed against former top executives of the firm.
What is the issue? Fraud – securities fraud, books cookery, grand larceny, and stupidity, to name a few. Dewey & LeBoeuf (D & L) executives were cooking the books for at least four years, to present a rosy financial picture while the firm was flailing in a free fall that ended in bankruptcy. So why is the legal blogosphere agog with the news of D & L? One of the reasons is that some of the evidence against the former executives is a lesson on how not to use email.
Email is convenient, quick and mostly informal so it is easy to forget that emails constitute documentary evidence that can turn round to bite you in the behind. How do you deny, deny, deny, when there is a written trail of your (mis)conduct? At the age of 12, I learnt that there are certain things that you do not put in writing even in your personal diary. It was a lesson learnt the hard way. One would assume that these former D & L executives would know better than to exchange emails with such incriminating lines as have been reported in the Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC) complaint against them.
“I don’t see how we’ll get past the auditors another year.”
“I think we made the covenants and I’m shooting for 60%. Don’t even ask – you don’t want to know.”
“I assume you [k]new this but just in case. Can you find another clueless auditor for next year?”
Reply – “That’s the plan. Worked perfect this year.”
“Hey man, I don’t know where you come up with some of this stuff, but you saved the day. It’s been a rough year but it’s been damn good. Nice work dude. Let’s get paid!”
“I don’t know anything about [the contracts] and I don’t want to cook the books anymore. We need to stop doing that.”
“I don’t know. He’s starting to wig a little. Maybe he’s hearing and seeing too much . . . .”
If it wasn’t such a serious issue, with ripple effects akin to Enron, one would be ROTFLMAO, but people’s lives have been seriously affected.
So what are some things to keep in mind when using email as a communication tool? Here are a few tips on email etiquette that can help in the workplace.
Professionalism – make sure your email address sounds professional. If you were firstname.lastname@example.org when you were a law student, you should move on to a more professional address and where possible shell out a little cash to get a domain name for your law firm. People will take you more seriously. Keep your language professional. Avoid emoticons and social abbreviations like the one I took the liberty to use above.
Brevity – keep emails short and to the point. You are not transmitting a thesis document and the $100,000 NLNG Nigeria Literature Prize is yet to establish a category for email prose. People are on the move these days and access their emails via mobile devices. No one wants to spend too much time scrolling through a long email. Consider sending details as an attachment and use the email text as a cover letter.
Reply – try to reply all emails within 24 hours of receipt even if it is just to acknowledge receipt and promise a detailed response within a week. Silence makes the sender wonder if you received their email or if you did, maybe you do not think them and the subject of their email important enough for a response. And when you do respond, address all issues that were raised in the initial email. If you cannot or do not want to respond to an issue, simply comment that you cannot answer that accurately now (even if all you want to say is “you are such an idiot for asking that”). Ignoring the question ensures that it becomes an annoyance as it will come back in repeat emails. Note that if your name is in the “Cc” list, the email is for your information only, please respect yourself (as we say in Naija) and do not jump into the conversation with a reply.
Separate the personal – do not use your work emails for non-work related business. Your party planning, weekend romp, unauthorised use of company property, and dislike of your principal partner may inadvertently get to the inbox of your superiors. Apart from the embarrassment, it may cost you your job.
Read through – I cannot emphasise how important this step is. Resist the urge to hit the send button as soon as you have finished typing the email. Read over from the addresses to the body of the email so that you can be sure that you are sending the email to your intended recipient, and edit for tone as well as grammar. When I entered university in 1992, the use of email was not as widespread as it is today. Very few of us had personal computers and had to go to the computer lab to use the systems there. What I do remember is that many relationships went sour over an email sent or received with the wrong tone. Give yourself time to cool off before you hit the send button with an angry missive. In law practice, an unnecessary break up with a boyfriend is the least of your worries; think instead of these words – professional negligence, confidential client information, lost clients, lost cash. Once it has been sent out, the impression has been made, no matter how many recall emails and apologies that follow. Some time ago, a lawyer inadvertently sent me an email that was intended for another lawyer overseas, giving a few details (with names of people in high places) about a client who needed help. I still have the email. Imagine…
Follow up – your email could take an adventurous journey through cyberspace before it gets to the recipient(s). Follow up an email with a phone call and/or traditional courier/post mail especially when dealing with clients.
Print – I know that we are all concerned about saving the earth, and nobody wants to be responsible for killing trees, but in the legal profession, you cannot take any chances. We know that emails sent can be doctored and/or falsified so print out all emails that you sent and received and file them appropriately – even the email from a client saying, “My sister, your lawyer did well in court today.” You may need that email when the same client turns around to say that your law firm botched their case.
Lunch instead – if there is any part of your email that would cause you embarrassment or a visit to the courthouse, then do not use email, do the chit-chatting over lunch or a glass of wine. Apart from the magic that forensic scientists can perform in retrieving deleted data from your computer, there is the all powerful Forward button that can make your private email the talk of people all over the world.