Thoughts on the Effective Use of E-mail and Its Ilk.

Some posts seem to be equally applicable to this blog and to my “WV Lawyer – Tips and Techniques”, . (Editor: try  I have done a couple there, on the new WV State Bar Referral Service and its ramifications for the small town lawyer, and my thoughts on the proper care and feeding of good mediators.

So here come some rather geeky thoughts, but ones that I think can greatly enhance the productivity and effectiveness of almost anyone.

E-mail may be on the way out, but not really. Now you can use Facebook as e-mail, have a GMail account, privately speak with colleagues via Linked In, and still use your old fashioned, but still nearly instantaneous, e-mail account.

I use Microsoft Office Outlook which could be much more user friendly, but it’s what I know (sort of). We use it for e-mail, calender, contacts, and tasks. It is our “tickler” for deadlines and litigation schedules.

At one end of the spectrum, I know a firm where the lawyers refuse to use e-mail for their professional correspondence. They insist on getting snail mail, or maybe a fax. They are proud that they are not instantly available to their clients, and aloof over any suggestion that is malpractice.

Let’s start with today. I have a meeting tomorrow morning. I have a co-counsel out of town. The other lawyer is out of town. He has an impending trial, so he is relying on two associates and a paralegal. I have a paralegal, and the other side is sending six people! We have chattered about it all day. 

We wrote small, to the point, notes, which should have us all arriving at the correct time and the same place. We even have “rules” about how we are going to behave. We threw it together on 48 hours notice. I don’t think we could have done it using phones.

I also had 8 e-mails in a case that was headed to a trial. We have avoided Armageddon by counsel’s agreeing to meet early next week. Only by getting my client to reduce his demand to concise numbered items and to promise the other lawyer I was ready to “talk turkey” did I pull that off. Again, e-mail made it possible.

As I have mentioned in other posts, I have four employees, three of whom are paralegals. Two do family law work and other duties; one does personal injury and civil law, and my wife/office manager Nancy does billing, purchasing, etc.

I copy them in nearly everything, but blind copying all but one so the other side doesn’t get nervous. I don’t want them to think I am setting them up. But the receptionist needs to know what going on. My billing clerk certainly needs to have a feel as to why a case is building up fees, especially fit the retainer is being depleted. And sometime I feel the flow of the office helps if we all know the client and his/her trials and tribulations.

My e-mails tend to be too long, BUT I keep paragraphs short; I number them; I cover what I need to; I suggest practical solutions, and I keep everyone informed as to where I am.

In one case we have a business valuation expert, opposing counsel, personal property appraiser, and real estate appraiser. In another we have a realtor, surveyor, and three law firms for sister, brother, and stepmother.

In three others I have co-counsel in other cites. One has a local counsel in a rural county, me as the originating lawyer and co-counsel, and now a new lead counsel because the case grew beyond our resources.

Is the latter case, I  have a paralegal, the local counsel has a secretary, and the lead counsel has two paralegals, and a young associate who carries his spears (and, of course is smart as a tack).

I know the most about the case at this point, so I have tried to make concise summaries for the other lawyers. Letetia, my paralegal, reminded us all that the pre-trial memo is due next week, something that may have been overlooked because of a couple of continuances and various controversies.

I know some lawyers who are “wired”. I can count on them for short but nearly immediate answers, so I plan my e-mails accordingly.

I have a half dozen lawyers I trust. We chat about the case regularly and effectively. Rather than “hide the ball”, I alert them to crises or client complaints as they come in, often forwarding the client’s words, with permission of course.

Sometimes I have a large document, array of photos, or a long video that cannot make it by e-mail. Rather than send them a cd, I just save to Drop Box and send them a link. They connect “to the cloud” and can copy and paste whatever I send them.

One informal “rule” I have for clients is “Please do not e-mail me from 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.” This is my quiet time. I will turn in to read @ 9:00 p.m and you can fire away. Sometimes I check my e-mail on the way to/fm the john, but normally early in the a.m. I let them know I am at work usually by 7:00 a.m. I expect to spend 30-60 minutes each morning on e-mail. I can keep my whole staff busy and focused by my e-mails, although it also can generate a false sense of urgency. We must guard against that.

Sometimes I outline for staff problems I anticipate in an upcoming trial or hearing. Other times I dictate  a motion, or a pleading, or a letter using Dragon Naturally Speaking and e-mail the Word document to staff to clean it up.

I taught myself to type 25 years ago using Typing Tutor, Mavis Beacon, and a “shoot’em up space game”. I can peck along at 40-50 wpm and I GET A LOT done. Pretty good for someone self diagnosed with dyslexia.

I am glad I am self diagnosed, because I always assumed I was “normal” and “smart” and was not burdened by learning I was not. (That’s not a joke by the way. A good friend, USAF Col. retired, and commercial pilot was told he was “slow” and remembers it to this day. Someone accidentally told me I was smart, and I was dumb enough to believe it.


1. I sent a flip remark to co-counsel about opposing counsel’s mistake, only to learn opposing counsel was in the “reply to” blank. Even a profuse apology did not restore us to a good relationship.

2. I sent a vacation photo of my wife and me with friends in front of the Greenbrier to my “FullColleague” group instead of FullFamily. Autofil is a blessing and curse. As they say about women, “Can’t live with (it) and can’t live without (it). ” My colleagues were most generous, writing that they were happy I had a life outside the office. BUT, my paralegal is “Jamie” and a worthy but tough adversary is “James”. Does anyone sense danger there?

3. By logging at least 1/10 hr. for each incoming e-mail, I have a wonderful billing system which helps partly to reflect my staff of 4, something almost unique for small town lawyers. Usually I do not bill separately for the “sent” e-mails thinking that the exchange from/to often makes up the actual time. I remind clients that at least 3 of us read each e-mail, and I offer to audit and include the e-mails and other time entries we over looked.

4. With the efficiencies we utilize, my sense is we charge less than many firms with lawyers and staff much less experience than we are and perhaps half of what my contemporaries who proudly admit, “I am not tech expert”. Well, in a way I am a tech expert. Not a programmer, an “end user”. But an end user who started with an Apple II and NEC Spinwriter printer in 1981.

I think you have to have a lot of confidence, and some guts, to use e-mail as we do. You have to be able to deal with the fact that anyone can forward any e-mail you send. You need to feel you can express yourself effectively and defend the content of what you sent.

I make mistakes. One colleague and friend, with a VERY GOOD memory regurgitated to me a litany of things I had e-mailed her, in the heat of battle, over the period of a year. It wasn’t pretty. When you hold your heart on your sleeve, the temptation of venting in anger, expressing disappointment, etc. is very great. I sent her my sincere mea culpa.She was kind to forgive.

As I move seamlessly from e-mail, to Facebook, to Twitter, to Linked In, and all my other activities, I stay “wired” all the time. I crave some peace, but get antsy if I have it. I am working on balance right now, but am having too much fun. I would read a book on meditation if I had the time, but then I wouldn’t have time to meditate.

I get my South Beach Diet recipe each day, and so much from my Facebook friends, personal friends, family, and colleagues. One friend wrote, and even called my wife, because he did not like the photo posted to my other blog of me 25 feet in the air on a ladder. He said I looked like an aging, crazy, firefighter “who is going to kill himself!”

That’s about it.

I hope you have the guts and the brains to use e-mail effectively.


This post was written by Burton Hunter

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