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Technology: Eleven Commandents of E-mail
Things to Remember Before Hitting Your Computer's 'Send' Button


by William S. Stevens

Fall 2004, Vol. 67, No. 3

This article doesn't offer advice on using your own e-mail account—that it's unwise to download kiddie porn or the complete works of Limp Bizkit. Neither is it about the dangers of using your office e-mail address for personal matters—unless you work alone, your employer, firm management committee, or partners almost certainly claim the right to monitor what you get and send. It's about using your work e-mail address for what you're supposed to do with it—your job. After all, that's probably why you got e-mail on your office computer in the first place.

But before we start, why eleven and not ten commandments? The only magic in the number ten comes from our standard issue of fingers or toes. Each year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation lists the Eleven Most Endangered Places, but they got to that number because someone counted wrong the first time they published the list. Almost everyone agrees that Moses had ten commandments (except for Mel Brooks, who said, in History of the World, Part 1, that he started with 15, but dropped one tablet on the way down Mt. Sinai.) With the commandments of Exodus, the question isn't how many commandments, but what they are. Former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore's are quite different from those listed in the Baltimore Catechism.

1. Never forget that e-mail isn't conversation; it's correspondence.
At first blush, it may look like conversation, but that's only because people treat it that way, as something evanescent, expected to dissipate like waves from a stone thrown into a still pond.

But treating e-mail like conversation does not make it so. It's writing. For all practical purposes, it's as permanent as a formal opinion of counsel, and, even worse, it's anything but private. You can't go too far wrong if you assume that every e-mail you send is going to your mother, your ex's lawyer, every rival law firm in town, and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Realize, of course, that a digital voicemail system operates in pretty much the same way as an e-mail system, so the phone message you leave may be just as permanent as the e-mail you send. The wiretapping laws may deter your ex's lawyer and the SEC here, but don't be sure about your mother and your competitors.

2. Don't ask a question by e-mail if you want the recipient to think about the answer, or answer a question without thinking about it just because it was posed in an e-mail.
Senders expect an immediate response, and recipients believe, rightly or not, that they should provide one. Everything has to be done now. All concerns are for the short term. With paper, it's easy to make a pile on the corner of your desk or throw a folder in your brief case—things to read in the airport or to return to after you've had the chance to mull them over. I have found no electronic equivalent, perhaps because I'm a techno-klutz, but equally likely because the psychology of business deters leisurely reading and nearly all thinking.

3. Neatness Counts.
Even in e-mail, bad spelling and bad grammar make you look like a doofus. In the same vein, don't trust spellcheck and its brethren. I'm not saying don't use these tools, just don't rely on them.

4. Act your age.
If you're over 40, don't use those cute abbreviations and jargon your teenage children use in their instant messages. You wouldn't get a good luck charm tattooed onto your neck, wear cargo pants to work, or put a jewel in your navel, would you? A happy or frowny face doesn't cut it either.

5. Don't reply to spam.
We're all tempted to score debating points by telling the person who's looking for help in moving millions in oil money out of Nigeria that your friends in the U.S. Attorney's Office are sure to find his story very interesting. Resist the temptation. By replying, you tell the spammeisters that the randomly generated address they cranked out connects to a real person. (I must confess that I have violated this and every other lesson I'm preaching here.)

6. Say 'Please' when you ask someone to do something.
The Information Age hasn't killed civility. At least I hope not. On the other hand, I don't know whether you should send an e-mail saying "Thank you" when someone does something you ask. He (or she) may want to know that you've received the information or seen the results. Maybe not. It's a judgment call. Judgment is another quality I hope hasn't expired in the Information Age.

7. When you reply to a message or forward it, delete unnecessary parts of the 'string.'
Professor Strunk told us to "omit needless words." The old parts of an e-mail string don't just distract your reader. They are indented more and more the older they get, so that printing one with all the old messages can add page after page of verbiage.

8. Don't say a message is 'confidential' if it isn't.
Lawyers are especially guilty of this. I get a lot of e-mail from lawyers, and almost every one says that it is a confidential attorney-client communication, even though not one of the senders is my lawyer or my client. I doubt that putting such a legend on an e-mail protects it from disclosure. If anything, it may be like the boy who cried "wolf." Claim that everything you say is confidential and none of it will be treated that way.

A smart computer nerd should be able to make a few bucks here. Just write a program that energizes a popup box before a message with the word "confidential" in it can be sent. The popup asks whether this message contains confidential communication that should be labeled as such. "Confidential Cleaner" might be a good name for this program.

There's a corollary to this commandment: Don't send information that's really confidential to people who shouldn't get it. Your litigation adversaries, for instance. If you do, you may as well send an e-mail to your malpractice carrier.

9. If you say something is attached to your e-mail, make sure it is attached.
While developing "Confidential Cleaner," the same programmer can develop a program that recognizes various forms of the word "attach" in the text of an e-mail. When the "Send" button is pushed, the popup asks: "Have you attached everything you said you would?"

10. Don't send a message before you've finished writing it.
The most effective way to do this is to fill in the "To" line last. It's not the way most of us think, but if the "To" line is blank, hitting "Send" doesn't do anything. There should be a way to set e-mail defaults so that the cursor appears in the text box rather than the "To" line.

11. Never send an e-mail while cursing the recipient.
Mr. Jefferson propounded no truth more self-evident.