Friday, February 8, 2013

Sending Emails: Lessons Learned from Doc Review

In every profession, there seems to be one task that is almost universally maligned.  One thing that nobody likes doing but everybody likes complaining about.  If someone in your profession asks you, "How's it going?" and you respond with, "[Name of task]," your colleague will immediately respond with a sympathetic groan of total understanding.

I don't know what that task might be in other professions, but I think among litigation associates at big law firms, that undesirable task is document review.

Document (doc) review, for the uninitiated, consists of clicking through thousands of documents (emails, PDFs, slideshows, spreadsheets, handwritten notes...anything that can be scanned or uploaded) that have been uploaded to an online database.  Doc review tasks can be more or less advanced, but generally involve making basic determinations of relevant issues in each document and clicking little checkboxes/radiocircles to preserve your classification for future searches and reviews.

Some of the common complaints about doc review:  it can be dull; it is not intellectually challenging; it is massively time-consuming; it involves working with frustrating technology; potential consequences for screwing up are relatively high (e.g., producing a document to the opposing side that actually should have been protected due to attorney client privilege can lead to a huge host of other issues).

(source) (Incidentally, I pulled this image from a Google image search for "document review," but then when I went to the source website to retrieve the URL to link back I realized that my firm has actually used this company before for trial support services!  They are utterly fantastic.  Highly recommend to all the lawyers out there.)

I've been pretty lucky in that I've probably spent less than 25% of my firm career thus far reviewing documents (junior associates like me are usually the people tasked with this kind of assignment), but for those times when I have to bite the bullet, it's helped me to focus on distilling some fun email-related life lessons from the work (aside from the obvious meta-lesson about taking one for the team and agreeing to do a doc review) (serious side note:  I also like observing the way other people send professional emails.  When I see a tone or email structure I like, I think about how I might improve my own emails using the documents I'm reviewing as a model).

[Note:  as I'm sure is clear, these are general lessons gleaned from a year and a half of being a junior associate and do not disclose any specific information about anything, nor do they relate to any specific document or case.  Wherever you see quotes, I have made up the content from my imagination.]

1.  Before you send any email, think to yourself, "How would this read to a lawyer?"
I know, I know.  "Who's going to sue me?" you're saying.  "I'm just a nice person on the internet with no enemies."  Well, guess what?  Very few people ever expect to get sued.  Even fewer nice people expect to get sued.  But people get sued all the time, or investigated for that crime your ex-boyfriend Lars committed, or whatever.  And when that happens, some lawyer may end up going through all your emails.  And when THAT happens, you really really don't want to have to explain in your deposition why you wrote to Lars, "Haha don't kill anybody on your way over!  LOL muah xxx."  If you think there's even the slightest chance Lars may have murderous tendencies, make a different joke.

This guy loves his documents.  (source)

2.  Maybe just don't send emails at all when you are angry or depressed?  How does that sound?
Heightened emotions look ridiculous in emails.  Think back to a time when you sent someone a really angry email (must be at least six months in the past).  Now go back and read it.  You look like a lunatic, right?  That's how you look to whoever you're emailing, too.  I know you really want to chew someone out over WHATEVER, but that emotion will subside and you'll wish you'd been more moderate.

3.  Emoticons in business emails:  Just don't.
I'm guilty of doing this sometimes with colleagues I also consider friends, but try to resist the urge.  You look like a dope.  (See also, #2.)

4.  Accept that you are powerless over forwarding.
Regardless of to whom you direct your emails, they can truly end up in anyone's mailbox.  You'd be amazed at how far email messages can circulate when they are forwarded around.  And, newsflash:  telling your original recipient not to forward your message does not actually prevent them from forwarding it.  I always have a chuckle when I stumble across an email that has been forwarded more than three times, with the original author and each subsequent forwarder admonishing the others, "please don't forward."  What's the solution?  If your email was to end up in the mailbox of exactly the person you least want to read your email, what would you be comfortable with that email saying?  Another way to put this would be:  don't say anything in an email that you wouldn't stand behind in a face-to-face conversation.  Or deposition.  Whichever.  That's why phones exist.  (Just don't leave a voicemail.)

(exploitable here, text by me)

What are your rules of thumb when it comes to sending emails?

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