Pardon the interruption, but…

How many emails do you receive each day that begin with, “Pardon the interruption, but…”?  That’s become jargon in many law firms, an apology that means nothing but is the accepted entry point for a firmwide (or office-wide, or practice group-wide) request of some sort.  Everyone will need to send out requests from time to time, but let’s pause today and think about how to make those requests in an effective and unobtrusive way.

First, think before you send the request!  Is the request you’re about to make something that you should know or be able to find out reasonably quickly?  For instance, some poor associate at my former firm achieved instant (and unwelcome) notoriety when he circulated an office-wide email asking whether laches is an affirmative defense.  At least one partner replied (to all, of course) by asking whether the associate was at all familiar with legal research using either Lexis or the office’s well-appointed library on the XXth floor.  Ouch.  None of us knows the answer to every practice question that comes up in a given day, but it’s important to know when to go find the answer versus when to ask.

Next, consider how to phrase your request.  Please, don’t begin your email with “Pardon the interruption.”  Formulaic expressions of contrition are useless.  Just get to your request.  By the same token, don’t begin your question with anything like, “Does anyone know off the top of their head definitively whether….”  It just doesn’t look good.

Instead, begin with the question.  “I need information on the admissibility of an interview summary that is arguably subject to attorney-client privilege but was produced to the opposing side in discovery.”  Provide sufficient information to allow someone to answer.  In this example, you’d want to communicate whether the producing party requested return of the document, and if so, when and how.  If it’s an unfamiliar area of the law, you may not be certain of the scope of information you need to provide, but at least make an effort.  And make sure your question is crystal clear, so no one wastes her time answering the question she thought you were asking when in fact you were looking at another issue altogether.

Decide to whom your request should be sent.  If you’re trying to find local counsel in a particular city, that’s probably appropriate for firm-wide (or office-wide) distribution.  If you’re looking for an answer to a substantive question, make sure to limit the request to lawyers who practice in the area of interest.  And consider whether a quick phone call or email to a handful of lawyers might yield better results.  Not everyone reads requests for help.

Finally, respond appropriately to those who offer help.  No one likes it when he works to answer a colleague’s question and the colleague doesn’t take the time to respond to the help extended.  There’s no need for anything extraordinary, but most people appreciate both the thanks and a quick update on how/whether the information offered was useful.

If you follow these steps and exercise good judgment, you can send out email requests without fear of ending up on the wrong end of a pointed response.  It’s often helpful to ask questions of colleagues, so don’t be skittish about it… But do be careful.

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