More on email signatures

A couple years ago, I wrote a post that argued we lawyers ought to dump the various disclaimers from our email signatures. (A few months later I was quoted in the Wall Street Journal in an article on that topic. Who’d have ever thought that would happen?)

Since that post in 2011, my email signature was simple:

William L. Wilson
Anderson • Agostino & Keller, P.C.

I began thinking about this signature a couple of weeks ago, and I have changed it a bit:

William L. Wilson
Anderson • Agostino & Keller, P.C.
131 S. Taylor St., South Bend, IN 46601
(574) 288-1510
www.aaklaw.com  Twitter: @WilliamWilson

I did this for a few reasons. First, some email correspondents like having the postal address and phone number available to them. Second, including the firm’s web site address and my Twitter handle can promote some traffic and build my online brand.

Note that the infernal disclaimers are still missing. I still believe they are useless. Why? Think of it this way. The idea behind the disclaimers is to preserve confidentiality in case the email is sent to the wrong person. But what happens to confidentiality if I write a letter to Client Alice but it gets put in an envelope addressed to Client Bob? None of us put similar disclaimers on our letters—and even if we did, they’d likely be at the bottom, to be read after the rest of the letter is already digested.

Many lawyers include the email disclaimer about the IRS tax-advice issue. But how many emails actually contain tax advice? As one panelist said at the ABA TechShow in April, “Lawyers look like asshats” putting that disclaimer in an email that contains nothing to do with taxes. Besides, if you really were presenting information that fell within the ambit of the tax-advice issue, wouldn’t you want to put that information right up front so the client reads it first? It doesn’t belong in your signature in that case.

Think about the information included in your email signature. If some kind of disclaimer is appropriate for that particular message, then include one. But don’t put it in the signature where it does no good. If it’s important enough to include a disclaimer, it’s important enough to make sure the disclaimer is done right.

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2 thoughts on “More on email signatures

  1. Interesting article, but you and the “asshat” panelist miss two good points: 1) better safe than sorry, and more importantly, 2) advice is in the eye of the beholder, so what you may consider as non-tax related advice may be construed otherwise by a client or a judge, just as the attorney-client relationship begins when the CLIENT thinks it does – not the attorney. Similarly, the confidentiality provision cannot make someone forget what they read, but it can leave them culpable if they misuse the information, or even prevent them from using the information against your client. I guess it is nice to listen to “asshat” panelists at a techshow (who think it is cute to use vulgarity in a professional setting to insult members of the show’s audience who are trying to be prudent), but did you happen to run the issue by your E&O carrier? Check any case law in the various jurisdictions on the matter? What makes sense to me is that the disclaimers on the bottom of an email hurt nothing and could possibly help clients and attorney avoid a needless issue, so at the risk of looking like an “asshat” to a tech show panelist, I think I will leave my disclaimers in place.

    And by the way, this post should not be construed as legal advice. 🙂

    1. Thanks for your comment, Gary (and the non-legal advice :-)) I’m always glad to hear alternative viewpoints so we can kick these things around.

      While it is arguably true that a judge or someone else might view some email content as tax advice, an email message such as “The hearing is set for next Thursday for the child support motion” is unlikely to be seen in any circumstance as tax advice. If there’s a reasonable chance that your email message could be seen as advice on avoiding tax penalties, then the appropriate disclaimer makes a lot of sense.

      I haven’t asked our malpractice carrier, but I’d be interested to know if anyone has a carrier who has asked about the firm’s policy on email signatures. Maybe we’ll get some attorneys who represent lawyers being sued for professional liability to chime in.

      My particular jurisdiction has no case law addressing email signatures, and while I’ve seen some cases reported about “claw-back” issues of inadvertent discovery disclosures I’m drawing a blank on any cases that hit this particular issue.

      Thanks again—hopefully we can get more people involved in the conversation.

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