When former FEMA Director Michael Brown sent a colleague an e-mail asking, "Can I quit now?" during the Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts, he revealed his true feelings about the situation to more people than just the intended recipient of the message. With his government status making his electronic communications fair game, Brown's e-mail circulated through Web sites and newspapers and eventually to the Senate floor as the government probed FEMA's fumbled response to the hurricane.
The fact that Brown's e-mail led to bad publicity isn't a new phenomenon. Today, the ease with which a seemingly innocent comment can become the focal point of an investigation is a serious concern for in-house counsel.
"Pretend that the e-mail is going to be blown up on a three-by-five-foot board and standing in front of a jury," said Laura Owens, head of Alston & Bird's products liability practice group. "Or pretend that you're reading it in the Wall Street Journal tomorrow, and then consider whether you want to send it."
In addition to educating staff on the pitfalls of careless e-mailing, in-house counsel at the forum agreed that forging strong relations with IT is an important best practice that all in-house counsel should add to their agenda.
"You need to collaborate with your information technology people, your in-house lawyers and your business people to have that team working to anticipate what is going to happen," said William Vetter, associate GC at Rockwell Automation Inc. "The consciousness-raising within your company is the thing that can really make a difference."