How to reduce litigation costs and exposure through better email habits

John Shonkwiler, Partner, Novack and Macey LLP

The cornerstone rule of discovery in civil litigation is that parties to a lawsuit must preserve, gather and produce relevant documents.

However, “it is becoming increasingly difficult and expensive to carry out this basic obligation, given the staggeringly high volume and informal nature of our electronic communications in the workplace,” says John Shonkwiler, a partner at Novack and Macey LLP.

Smart Business spoke with Shonkwiler about the importance of forming better emailing habits.

What are some ways to improve emailing habits?

Stop ‘reflex’ emailing. Too often, we respond to email immediately. This is the texting culture invading the workplace, which is an environment that demands better judgment and discretion.

It is not inconsiderate or unprofessional to deliberate before responding to email.  Sometimes just waiting 10 to 15 minutes can make a big difference. Except in those rare instances where an urgent response is called for and cannot be made by phone, people should not fire off immediate responses.

Why is ‘reflex’ emailing problematic from a litigator’s perspective?

As the volume increases, so does the cost of electronic discovery. Reflex emailing exacerbates the problem by creating more email unnecessarily and so often it can be inconsequential. For example, a response of, ‘I’ll check on this and get back to you,’ is often unnecessary. And you don’t have to be a physicist to understand the laws of ‘e-gravity’: When you send more email, you receive more email. So, consider whether each email you compose has a purpose.

Also, emails that are carelessly or informally prepared are more likely to reflect poor judgment, convey inaccurate information, or contain sarcastic or flippant remarks on serious topics that don’t translate well on paper. These things make for bad documents in litigation. You want to think of every email like a potential trial exhibit. Ask yourself, if you were on the witness stand, would you like to be confronted with this? Often the worst documents that we see as lawyers as we’re gathering documents in discovery are careless emails.

How should employers teach employees about using better discretion?

Just ask employees to place a higher value on their email correspondence. Apply the same care and consideration when you’re sending an email that you would if you were sending a letter on your company’s letterhead. And remember to consider that your message might be better delivered in person or over the phone.

How does organizing help reduce exposure and litigation costs?

Email can be organized like paper correspondence. This means deleting the emails you don’t need and organizing the messages that you keep into folders.

This helps in at least two ways. First, it makes it far easier and cheaper to find and gather relevant email in response to discovery requests. Second, when every email must be accounted for and filed, or deleted, the sender tends to place a higher value on each email, give greater care to the contents and more carefully consider whether a message needs to be sent in the first place.

For people who have never organized their email, how can they get started?

If the task of sorting through every email in your inbox is too imposing, just move the entire contents of your Inbox into a folder titled ‘My Inbox as of [date].’ You can do the same with your sent items. This way, you can start clean and use your new habits going forward, and still have easy access to your old emails if you need them.

Have there been any recent developments in the law concerning email discovery?

Electronic discovery is probably the single hottest topic in continuing legal education courses, and has been for years. It is interesting, however, that for all the attention given to the issue, there has been relatively little discussion about addressing the root of the problem, our emailing habits. This is going to change as employers continue to learn about the significant costs of housing massive amounts of unorganized email.

John Shonkwiler is a partner at Novack and Macey LLP. Reach him at (312) 419-6900 or [email protected] Legal Affairs is brought to you by Novack and Macey LLP