First, a shameless plug. Then, back to business.

I’ll be giving my “book talk” about The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law at The University of Michigan Law School on Monday, March 5, and again at Northwestern University Law School on Tuesday, March 27. If there’s a chance your organization might be interested in that talk, and you’ll be in Ann Arbor or Chicago at the right times, please let me know. We’ll sneak you into the room, and you can get a sense of the topics that I discuss.

Now, the business: You are not a potted plant! When you transmit something, either within a law firm or to (or within) a corporate law department, add value. You are not — or should not be — simply a conduit through which things flow. You don’t impress people with your timidity, and you may well annoy people.

What am I thinking of?

I’m thinking of everything.

Suppose you’re trying to resolve a legal issue. You naturally explain the question in your email. How does a potted plant close the email? The plant offers no advice on how to proceed and instead either solicits advice from the recipient or proposes to set a meeting: “When you have a minute, let’s discuss this.”

How does a sentient being close the email? The sentient being briefly discusses the pros and cons of the situation and then proposes a course of action: “To my eye, the advantages of doing this are A and B. The disadvantages are C and D. On balance, I propose that we [and suggest something].”

Why does this help? The plant email doesn’t move the ball; the email transmits information, but doesn’t move the discussion forward. The sentient email keeps the ball rolling; that email proposes a course of a action, lets people think about the proposal, and invites people either to agree or disagree with the suggestion.

Why do people act like plants? Because people are timid. “My goodness,” the plant is thinking, “I could suggest how to move forward, but the client [or the boss, or whomever] might disagree with me. I don’t want to be overruled, so I’m better off not speaking. I’ll let the other person make a decision.” The plant chooses not to expose himself [itself?] to rejection.

What’s the recipient of the plant email thinking? Typically: “This has been sitting on the plant’s desk for a while. Surely the plant has some idea how to proceed. Why didn’t that clown suggest something?” Or, worse: “The answer to this is pretty obvious. I’m surprised that [plant] couldn’t figure it out for himself.”

Any time you transmit information, consider adding value. Thus, it doesn’t do me much good to hear, after the hearing in New York, “We just got out of the hearing in New York. We’ll let you know when the judge decides the motion.” How about adding a hint of value, as though you, the lawyer, actually exist? “We just got out of the hearing in New York. The hearing lasted for about 30 minutes. The judge asked the other side about issues A, B, and C. The judge had essentially no questions for us. My crystal ball is cloudy, but I’m feeling guardedly optimistic about this motion. We’ll of course let you know the minute the judge rules.” Aha! An email sent by a sentient person.

Another example of a plant email: “The Second Circuit decided our appeal this morning. I’ve attached the decision.”

Are you kidding me?

If you’re transmitting the opinion to me the instant you received it (because you know I’m anxious to know the result), then your email has the subject line: “Smith: 2d Cir. decision — affirmed!” The text of your email might say: “We received, moments ago, the attached decision from the Second Circuit in the Smith case. I haven’t yet had a chance to read this 42-page opinion, but the last word is ‘Affirmed,’ so this appears to be great news. I’ll send more details within the hour, after I’ve had a chance to read this.”

Or, if you haven’t transmitted the opinion instantaneously, your cover email might give the nutshell version of the opinion, along with a short description of likely future steps. Perhaps, after the description of the case: “The plaintiff has until [date] to petition for rehearing and can of course petition for certiorari. Because the decision rests entirely on state law, however, it’s pretty unlikely that the Supreme Court would hear this case. Perhaps the end of this long drama is finally near.”

I’m not talking here about doing endless research to pin down obscure questions of law. I’m talking about taking 30 seconds to add the value that any thinking human being would add: What did you observe? What do you propose? If you propose that something should be communicated, perhaps attach a draft of the communication. What question will the recipient of this email likely have, and how can the writer answer it for him in advance?

I understand that timidity protects your ego: If you don’t speak, you can’t be wrong. On the other hand, if you don’t speak, you also can’t be right — you can’t impress anyone. An awful lot of people in this competitive profession of ours are looking for more than mere conduits of information. People are looking for lawyers — sentient human beings who react intelligently to events around them.

You are not a potted plant. When you transmit information, add value.


Mark Herrmann is the Vice President and Chief Counsel – Litigation at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law (affiliate link). You can reach him by email at inhouse@abovethelaw.com.


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