General Counsel to Employees: Think Before You Send

Katheryn Hayes Tucker
Fulton County Daily Report

E-discovery rules have caused in-house counsel to take a harder line with some of the e-mails that workers think are private

“Don’t put this in writing, but … ” Those are the opening words of an e-mail that got the writer’s company in legal hot water. And there are plenty more where that came from.

“This is off the record,” started the e-mail that in fact put it all on the record.

How about this one? “We may be in breach of contract, and here’s why.”

These examples of troublesome e-mails general counsel say they’ve run across don’t include the countless off color so-called jokes forwarded to contact lists of colleagues, interested or not, or links to Web sites that are definitely not part of a corporate job description.

The “send” button — together with its evil cousins, “forward” and “reply all” — are causing a world of trouble for corporations as they connect to evidence in legal proceedings and create a new mess for in-house lawyers to clean up.

“We all need to educate ourselves and our clients about the large bucket of problems that come up with e-mails,” said R. Scott Meece, global general counsel, senior vide president and secretary of CIBA Vision Corp. “People send e-mails as though they were having conversations with someone in a bar.”

The problem with e-mails has been a recurring topic recently in GC roundtable discussions and elsewhere — including protracted legal battles.

“We’ve broken open a lot of investigations just because of what we find in the e-mails,” said W. Scott Sorrels, a partner with Powell Goldstein specializing in corporate securities and regulatory matters and a former enforcement attorney with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. He and Jennifer D. Odom, a Powell Goldstein partner specializing in securities, corporate and regulatory litigation as well as electronic discovery, have given a series of presentations on the perils of e-mail.

“We had one example that started out, ‘don’t put this in writing but … ‘” Sorrels said. The writer “then proceeded to shoot himself in the foot, the knee and the elbow.”

It has now become routine even in civil investigations for computers to be subpoenaed so lawyers can look at e-mails and hard drives. And one thing always leads to another. “We have forensic software that shows multiple levels of deletions. It shows thought processes. We can learn far more than from just a document alone,” said Sorrels. “E-mails have taken over the world.”

“You wouldn’t believe the things that people say — as though they’re just talking to a buddy,” said CIBA Vision’s Meece. Yet these e-mails are saved, backed up, forwarded or otherwise preserved — even when people think they’ve deleted them. “They very well can live forever.”

Even worse, sometimes e-mails tell a part of the story, but not all of it. So their continuing existence amounts to a sound bite taken out of context, multiplied and amplified forever.

“My biggest fear with e-mails is not that it can be used against you in some way, but that the assumption is it’s telling the whole story, and it’s not,” said Meece. “It may be the truth but not the whole truth, and there may be some silly stuff in there that’s not ‘nothing but the truth.'”

Ask just about any GC or labor and employment lawyer, and you’ll hear similar concerns. “We deal with this issue all the time — more and more,” said Matthew W. Clarke, a partner in Smith, Gambrell & Russell’s employer services. “The main problem that occurs over and over is that people have such a casual attitude and approach when it comes to writing and sending e-mails.”

The resulting problem is not just a matter of taste but a matter of law — as in harassment or hostile work environment. “People will put something in an e-mail that they would never say in front of other people or in a drafted memo,” said Clarke. “They’ll just put catty comments or frankly inappropriate language. They don’t think the e-mail will ever come back to bite them or ever see the light of day. Now, with e-discovery rules, plaintiffs are dredging up e-mails that go back years. They call people names. They make inappropriate comments.”

These include, Clarke said, “can you believe that [expletive] is complaining about this?” Or, “I can’t believe she’s pregnant at such an inconvenient time at work.” Or, “we need to get rid of the dead wood.”

E-mails, text messages, BlackBerry communications all are potential time bombs if not worded thoughtfully and with discipline. “It just creates the potential for a permanent record for all this type of stuff,” Clarke said. “People don’t realize that to some degree, if it’s in an e-mail, it’s analogous to etching it in stone.”

Clarke’s best advice to in-house counsel is to work with other departments to regularly repeat training in e-mail etiquette. Remind employees that their communications on office computers — and even company cell phones, BlackBerrys and home computers used for work — belong to the company and are not in any way private. If it’s off the record, don’t write it. Pick up the phone or better yet, walk over. Don’t hit the send button in the heat of anger.

And above all, said Clarke, never say anything in an e-mail that you wouldn’t want to see displayed on a giant screen in a court room in front of a judge and jury even years from now. Because that is exactly where it might end up.