Many companies train employees to enter phrases such as ‘confidential’ or ‘attorney work product’ and copy counsel when sending sensitive emails so that the information is protected under attorney-client privilege. In the event the company becomes embroiled in litigation, counsel would see such phrases and flag the messages as privileged, preventing them from inadvertently being produced to the other side during discovery.

However, while it’s a good idea to include such phrases in messages, it’s not always enough in the court’s eyes to designate it as privileged. Also, a computer’s auto-save feature may have saved versions of an email that didn’t include such phrases, leaving them unprotected. Both of these issues arose during Oracle America, Inc. v. Google, Inc.

“For each email being composed, Google’s system was saving multiple drafts of it. That’s probably something that you wouldn’t want to do,” says Jude A. Fry, a partner with Fay Sharpe LLP. “Then when the company got sued, there were, for this single email, multiple versions, and the only version put on the privileged log was the final one.”

Smart Business spoke with Fry about how companies can ensure privileged information sent through email is protected.

What happened in the Google case?

Oracle claimed Google’s Android smartphone platform infringed its patents, and the two entered into litigation. An email that included language that could be harmful to Google in the patent case was placed on a privileged log, a document describing items that can be withheld from a case under attorney-client privilege.

That internal email was sent to the vice president in charge of the Android smartphone platform at Google, copying Google’s counsel in the ‘to’ field. The email was captioned ‘attorney work product’ and ‘Google confidential.’

While the final version of the email was placed on a privileged log, auto-saves of the email were inadvertently produced to Oracle’s counsel during discovery. Since the auto-saved drafts did not include the phrases ‘attorney work product’ or ‘Google confidential,’ they were not caught by electronic scanning mechanisms.

Google demanded that Oracle return the emails under the clawback provision of the protective order, claiming the emails were privileged. Oracle returned the emails but filed a motion to compel their production. The district court ordered that the emails be reproduced.

How were the auto-saved drafts of the email not coded as privileged?

When doing the search, counsel was likely using key words to see what was coded as privileged. There were probably thousands of emails produced. Counsel was able to locate the final email because, by that point, the author had put the phrase ‘attorney work product’ in the email’s body and added the attorney as one of the recipients. However, in other auto-save versions those phrases weren’t included, so they didn’t get flagged.

What’s disturbing is that the system saved nine versions during the time it took to type it up. Why is it necessary to save all of those versions?

Consider only saving emails that are sent, and configure your email system to delete all other versions. Also, understand how your email system works — whether auto-drafts are saved, what happens to these drafts, where they’re stored. Figure this out now and not when a case is pending.

How should a corporate employee set up an email to make sure it is privileged?

Train your employees to direct the email to legal counsel in the ‘to’ field and salutation. State in the email that information is being given to or sought from the lawyer so that he or she can give legal advice. Also, include in the message that it is being prepared in anticipation of litigation, at the direction of an attorney, to further the provision of legal advice. Include headings such as ‘attorney work product,’ ‘privileged’ and ‘confidential.’ However, these headings alone will not make an email privileged, so limit the substance of the email to the legal issues.

People write a lot of emails but often don’t think about someone other than the intended recipient reading it. When doing business though email, consider who could possibly read the message and approach it accordingly. It’s a good practice to think carefully before you put something in writing.

Jude A. Fry is a partner at Fay Sharpe LLP. Reach her at (216) 363-9113 or jfry@faysharpe.com.

Insights Legal Affairs is brought to you by Fay Sharpe LLP

Published in Cleveland