Sig and Disclaim
By jennifer j. rose
The days have long passed when everyone’s email signature contained a clever quote intended to brand the sender’s outlook on life and some awful ASCII art. The latter, for late arrivals and those too young to remember where they were when Jock Ewing was shot, consisted of a series of diacritical marks spread out to make a design only slightly more interesting than the TV test patterns of yore. But only moments after the urge to be artistic ended did lawyers feel compelled to add a disclaimer to the end of piece of outgoing email, disavowing any and all attorney-client relationships, proclaiming confidentiality, and instructing all unintended recipients from viewing, copying, disclosing, or distributing any of the information therein contained under penalty of something really, really bad. And lawyers, being lawyers, felt that the wordier the disclaimer, the more it would boast to the world that the lawyer was being duly lawyerly. Or at least really paying attention.
More often than not, the disclaimer would exceed the content of the message. And since it was almost always inserted at the very end of the message, below the sender’s signature, the bell that can’t be unrung has already tolled once the reader gets down to the end of the message. Now, since most readers of the English language have a tendency to read from the top of the page to the bottom, wouldn’t it be more reasonable to insert that disclaimer in a more prominent position in the body of the email?
When faxes were the cutting edge of electronic communication, one-page disclaimers begging unintended recipients to ignore the contents and notify the sender of the missent missive were standard operation procedure. A cover page preceding the secret and confidential documents bore those warnings. Those cover pages were also a public relations signal that the lawyer was being conscientious. Somehow no one ever thought of attaching similar disclaimers to misdirected paper-and-envelope communications delivered by a uniformed representative of the federal government.
Inserting the disclaimer at the beginning of the email, or even just below the salutation, alerts the recipient that this is an important message, intended only for certain eyes and ears. Doing so alerts the unintended recipient that he or she will turn into a pillar of salt by reading more of the message.
In June 2005, the U.S. Treasury Department came up with Circular 230, a 60-page document that provides standards of practice for written advice that tax professionals must provide to their clients, so lawyers started adding yet another disclaimer:
IRS Circular 230 disclosure: To ensure compliance with requirements imposed by the IRS, we inform you that any tax advice contained in this communication (including any attachments) was not intended or written to be used, and cannot be used, for the purpose of (i) avoiding tax-related penalties under the Internal Revenue Code or (ii) promoting, marketing, or recommending to another party any matters addressed herein.
Are those disclaimers and disclosures necessary in each outgoing email message? Absolutely not. The email you sent this afternoon to Erika Mustermann telling her that the court date has been continued doesn’t require the Circular 230 disclosure. The email you fired off to Don Nadie setting up that tennis game and to the bar committee headed up by Joe Bloggs don’t require disclaimers or disclosures. Nor do the posts you ordinarily make to mailing lists. Unless, of course, you’re trying impress others of your stature, importance and tendency to bore others to death.
But it’s automatic, you claim. That’s nonsense. Practically every modern email program offers up the ability to use multiple signatures. While Gmail only offers the option of a single signature or none at all, Lifehacker.com has a method available for those who just want to see if it can be done. (I’m not sure which is more extreme: using Gmail as the primary law office email client or trying to refill a Bic pen.)
Hallmark created a greeting card for just about every occasion, and Nike produces a shoe for practically every sport known to mankind. Lawyers who send email should do the same, gauging the signature, disclaimer, and disclosure to the recipient:
• An informal signature, like “jen” (if that happens to be your name), for internal email and mail to friends
• A formal signature for clients
• Another signature designating each role performed in an organization
It’s time to end signature bloat now!
jennifer j. rose, former editor-in-chief of GPSOLO and secretary of the GP|Solo Division, receives her email at firstname.lastname@example.org in Morelia, Michoacán, Mexico.