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When Email Fails:

When email fails. This is a common problem for lawyers. Although email can be a quick and efficient way to communicate, there are times when it is not.

In fact relying too heavily on email communication as an exclusive tool to communicate can be hopelessly inefficient. This is when email fails as a powerful communication tool.

There are times we have to break down talk to a human on the other end of the phone, or even (dare I say it) meet them face to face! 

Because so much of our actual communication comes from body language and tone of voice, emails can lose much of what we are trying to say. 

Email has overwhelmed our work communication methods. These methods can be speedy and highly effective if used in the right context. The right context can include quick communication to set up meetings, advise other lawyers as to when they can expect a piece of correspondence and other quick matters. 

At the same time, email can be a highly ineffective tool in the following scenarios when:  

  1. We must have something dealt with on an urgent basis;
  2. We need to communicate a complex issue (like why our client will not accept an offer) and to communicate in writing will not lead us closer to settlement; and when
  3. We are very frustrated and push the send the send button way too soon.

Let Us Get This Sorted Already!

I run a business. I have a great exmple of when email fails when we recently switched our software. We recently did an accounting software switch and upgrade that has been an unmitigated disaster. For the first day or two of our new software not working properly, we would email the customer service folks. They would, half a day or so later get back to us. They would answer our specific questions, but we our software remained not working properly. 

We would try their suggestions, and those suggestions would not work, leaving us with no effective solution to our problem. This back and forth with their customer service department went on for several days. 

More than a week later, our very busy little law office still had no effective accounting software in place.  

It took some time for me to realize that nobody was talking to anyone on the phone to communicate in what way our software was not working. It sometimes requires the human touch, including discussing matters on the phone, to sort out what we need. This is a huge example of when email fails.

When Email Fails:  Sometimes We Need Better Understanding:

As lawyers, we negotiate all day long. We need to communicate our client's position, and at the same time, get the other side to "yes" in terms of our clients' needs. 

Writing a lengthy letter setting our client's response to the other party's position can be useful and necessary. At the same time, that letter will likely not convince the other side of the reasonableness of our client's position without a phone call.

Here is an example.

I have a client (Susan) who switched to me as her lawyer from a previous lawyer. Susan's previous lawyer stepped down because she went on medical leave. Susan's husband's lawyer is Michael. Susan's ex's name is James. 

Michael's office had drafted the separation agreement. Since the time of the separation agreement was drafted, Susan became aware of new information that substantially impacted the settlement the parties had reached. The draft separation agreement needs to change. 

When I wrote to Michael to say I was the new lawyer on the matter, Michael and James became very frustrated. They thought the parties were about to sign an agreement. Because Susan hired a new lawyer, they believed that Susan was dragging things out. They also thought she was trying to back out of the agreement she made. They responded aggressively threatening court action.

They were not aware of the new information that Susan had that impacted the separation agreement. They were also not aware that Susan's former lawyer went on medical leave and that Susan had no choice but to hire a new lawyer.

When I called the opposing lawyer rather than writing an email, I was able to communicate that Susan also wanted closure with respect to this matter. I was able to communicate that the agreement needed to change because of the new and important information. When learning the new information, Michael agreed that Susan had a point. He ultimately communicated Susan's new information to James.

This one phone call between lawyers likely avoided costly litigation for both of these parties. We are now back on track to settling this matter in a way that will meet both the clients' needs. If that phone call did not happen, we would be heading straight to court. This is another example of when email fails.

Information and The Needed Human Touch:

Another example of when email fails is when we need to communicate with our clients and others and that communication needs the human touch. When you are in the customer service business, aka law or whatever, it is important to pick up the phone or meet clients face to face. This personal touch is what clients (our customers) need in order to feel like we give a damn about them.

Shooting off an email can sometimes be so easy, and when doing so we may not be giving our clients our whole attention, that being the attention of our mind and heart. 

Email does not require our full attention the way a face-to-face meeting or telephone call will do. 

Pushing the Send Button:  Never Do It When the Heart Rate is Up!

Because we deal with conflict a lot of the time, sometimes other lawyers can frustrate us. It is important to remember that when we are feeling very angry with another lawyer, that this is probably not the time to push the send button on an email. This is another time when email fails as an effective communication tool.

Our law firm has a number of files with this one particular lawyer in our city. This one particular lawyer is a nightmare. I call him Mr. Difficult. In my opinion, Mr. Difficult lacks competence, is unnecessarily aggressive, and fails to have any sense of proportion in terms of issues on legal matters. I have the belief that he does a disservice to his clients as well as mine. He is an embarrassment to our profession. 

At the same time, I also have to be grateful for Mr. Difficult because he has taught me a lot about what not to do when dealing with nightmare opposing counsel and what to do for our clients when dealing with nightmare opposing counsel. 

Mr. Difficult has sent our office up to 8 letters a day on a single matter, driving costs up and, unfortunately doing nothing to move matters forward. 

It is so very tempting for me to send him an email or letter telling him off. I want so very much to lecture him about what an idiot he is. I want to convince him that his supposed "advocacy" is doing a huge disservice to his client and my client. I want to tell him how his way of practicing law gives lawyers a bad name. It is at this time that I realize (while my heart rate is up) that the time to push the send button is not now. No matter what I say, he will not be convinced. My lecture to him will only increase the drama and conflict, not decrease it.

Sending an email right away is when email fails as a communication tool. Waiting 24 hours to respond (or even 48 if I am angry) is necessary to avoid exacerbating the conflict. 

Email is great when used well. We just need to remember that it is not a tool that works well in exchange of in-depth thought or direct face-to-face or phone communication.

Written by Val Hemminger, lawyer and owner of Hemminger Law Group

Val has created this website to share with her colleagues. She  is not suggesting, by any means, that she is the best divorce lawyer out there. She is, however, suggesting that she is the best divorce lawyer that she herself can be. Feel free to share anything you find useful.