Don’t ask for help and then say I’m not allowed to answer

keyboardlockMy recent post on lawyers using email discussion lists as gofers has received quite a bit of attention, ironically, on at least one email discussion list. Today, something else popped up that I felt is worth commenting on. (Warning, slight rant ahead.)

A lawyer posted a question to an email discussion list. I replied (to the list and directly to the lawyer), and I received an automatic reply:

Sorry for the auto reply. In an effort to control spam I now allow incoming messages only from senders I have approved beforehand. If you’d like to be added to my list of approved senders, fill out the request form at the link below…

I was a little annoyed. I understand no one wants more spam in their email inbox. (Could I say this spam filter system was spamming me by putting the auto-reply in my inbox?) On the other hand, asking a question and then making me jump through a hoop or two to give you an answer seems a bit, well, off-putting. I quickly calmed down (I went from a 3 to a 2 on the Irritation Scale, so it wasn’t that big a deal) and realized there is an opportunity to share some lessons.

There are ways this type of spam control could backfire. If a judge wanted to email this attorney, could the judge even load the web site provided in the link? Many governmental IT departments blacklist a lot of web sites. If a potential client wanted to contact this attorney, will the potential client feel welcome or like they aren’t good enough to be heard from?

Spam (unsolicited commercial email, if you want to be technical) is a huge problem. Everyone needs some kind of spam filter. The better filters are those that don’t require an emailer to be white-listed. I happen to use Sanebox. Google Mail (the regular and apps for business version) has excellent spam filters. There are add-on software applications that will use databases to assess whether incoming email is spam. None of them require the sender to do anything to make sure her email gets through. Plus, who wants to have to take the time to approve email senders anyway?

I will be the first to admit that I’m becoming a bit of a curmudgeon. But technology is supposed to make our lives easier, not more annoying (yes, it has a long, long way to go in many instances). Making it even a little more difficult for people to communicate with you, in my view, is not worth the convenience on your end. If you’re using one of these “thou must be approved first” systems or services, you might consider looking for a better solution.

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Four ways to make it harder for clients to contact you

Back in the old days, before voice mail, call waiting, even before answering machines, people could use a little trick to let preferred callers reach them. If you didn’t want to appear to be at home, but were expecting someone to call, you could let that person give you a signal. The person would dial your number, let it ring once, then hang up. A few seconds later, the person would dial your number again. On your end, you heard the one ring, followed by a pause, and then the next set of rings. At that point, you knew it was safe to pick up the phone.

This was a great way to avoid the boss who might want you to come in, yet still let your friends get through so you could coordinate that day’s outing to the movie theater. For your friends, it was great. For your boss, not so much.

Today, I am amazed at the number of lawyers who use similar techniques to avoid contact from clients, attorneys, and others. Here are four excellent methods:

  1. Use an anti-spam system that requires a sender to “confirm” his or her email address. Yes, spam is a problem, but with today’s filtering tools it’s not nearly the problem it used to be. Our firm uses Google Apps for our email, so we have Google’s spam filtering that kills off just about every solicitation for V1@gra. On top of that, I use SaneBox, which filters my email messages further into categories that I can review later and puts important messages into my inbox. The message you send with these email confirmation systems is that you don’t trust the person contacting you, and you’re more than happy to make them jump over a small hurdle to get in contact with you. Imagine if you had to do something similar at a restaurant: before you can make a reservation over the phone, you physically go in and fill out a form with your contact information. If I ran into a restaurant like that, I’d go elsewhere.
  2. Put a broken email address on your web site. Perhaps you have a general contact email address, like “lawyers@DeweyCheathamHowe.com.” Make sure that email sent to that address bounces back as undeliverable. (I had that happen to me just this morning using an address on a firm’s web site. If it frustrated me as a mediator trying to send potential mediation dates, you can bet it will frustrate the client.)
  3. Don’t put individual attorney email addresses on your web site. Make potential clients, your fellow attorneys, and even court staff dig up the general contact address—and if it’s broken, even better!
  4. Don’t put your fax number on your web site. Yes, faxing things is so 1990s, but at times it is convenient. I use an online fax system so I can send a fax to one or one hundred people via a single web page. But if you don’t want to get my urgent correspondence—or if you don’t want your clients to be able to quickly fax you a document—then keep your fax number off your web site.

    Since I’m feeling generous, here’s a bonus method.

  5. Don’t have a firm web site. Even in the year 2014, I am amazed at the number of law firms that don’t have web sites. Many of them do volume work, like collections or mortgage foreclosures. They may not have many potential clients looking for them via Google, but they probably do have opposing counsel, mediators, and court staff who would like to be able to locate contact information for individual attorneys. And, hey, if the firm moves, people can just wait until the new phone books come out in order to get the new contact information.

If you really don’t want people to be able to contact you, it’s your call. But no client has ever said that she recommends her attorney because he’s so hard to contact. No court clerk has ever said to the judge that a particular attorney is wonderful because she can’t be contacted except via snail mail. No colleague has ever referred a potential client to a lawyer because that lawyer’s web site had a broken email link.

More on email signatures

I like to think of myself as a pretty smart individual. That being said, I’m the first to admit that there are plenty of people who are smarter than I am. One of the things I love about the Internet is that I get to read the ideas and arguments of people like that.

One example of this comes from Andrew LeGrand over at Paperless Chase. He points out that with 50% of email messages being read on smartphones, email signatures should be optimized for those readers. Andrew begins,

Picture your most important client in her car, struggling to find the quickest way to get in touch with you by phone, text, or email.

She doesn’t want to see, or accidentally click on, a fax number or main office number. She wants to get in touch with you.

Immediately. As in NOW.

Does she want to look at your email signature and see fancy graphics as she wheels out of the rental car parking lot? Does your tagline about considering “the environment before printing this email” make her pause and silently revel in your social altruism?

No.

Do her a favor and get rid of unnecessary mumbo jumbo gumbo.

Read Andrew’s post to find out what should be in your email signature. Now, please excuse me while I go off to revise mine.

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.