The Proper Use of Emails

By Michael J. Howell


Many people misunderstand the role of emails and believe that they can be used in lieu of most, if not all, meetings, and will substantially reduce the cost of their legal services, when in fact, they may actually increase the costs, especially when overused or misused.  Emails, just as telephone conferences, are billed or charged to the client for the labor involved in reviewing, responding and filing. 

Emails do, however, save the labor and cost of printing a letter, making a file copy, folding it, placing the stamp on the envelope, and then placing the letter in the mailbox or taking it to the post office.  These costs do add up and are also ultimately paid by the client, in one form or another, which is also why emails are used in an attempt to reduce costs.  

Emails are also often a quicker means of communication than even a telephone conference, because you can send them and then when the recipient has time, they can respond.  This can avoid “telephone tag.” 

It can take just as much attorney time to draft an email response, as it does a letter, and the only time that might be saved, is that of the legal assistant or paralegal, which admittedly can be a significant saving.  Even this is not necessarily correct, since emails on complex subjects are often more or less dictated, proofed, and re-proofed, prior to emailing, very much like letters on important subjects. 

It should also be kept in mind that the answer to many questions are not simple and need to be carefully.  Probate, Trust and Will Law and the resulting property law and tax consequences are one of the most complex areas of the law. Most lawyers know this, which is why there are very few of us who certified specialists in estate planning and probate law. 

In most instances, it only takes a few emails to equal the cost of a one (1) hours office conference.  It is often easier for an attorney to provide a face to face verbal response to a client where there is immediate feedback, clarification, and re-explanation, when needed.  You cannot do this with an email. 

Similar considerations apply to telephone conferences.  They can sometimes be more effective and more cost efficient than emails, but may not be as effective as an office conference.  This is because with a telephone conference, there is also no face to face contact where reactions and understanding or misunderstanding can be more effectively judged and addressed. 

One of the most common symptoms of overusing or misusing emails is when we receive a very short email, but the response email is much, much longer and complex.  This takes time to put together a clear response with sufficient detail.  It may also take other follow up work on file and research information.  

Another common symptom is that there are a string of small emails, each one requiring a separate response.  We have also found that some emails are intended to avoid answering questions, which often increases the fees that a client is charged.  Often these costs can be reduced by a telephone or office conference. 

Quite frankly, sometimes there is no good substitute for an office conference and achieving the proper balance between office conferences, telephone conferences, and emails is necessary in order to have cost savings. Otherwise, the costs can be more and not less.