Never, I mean ever, send a Word file as “correspondence.” In a paperless office a word processing file is not a document. PDFs are documents. Word files are drafts. And sending a draft that includes your digital letterhead and signature to anyone is just plain stupid. Here’s why:
Three times in the last few weeks I’ve received “correspondence” attached to an e-mail from an attorney involved in one of my cases. Nothing unusual about that. While I think an e-mail with a professional looking signature block is plenty formal, there are times when a “formal” letter is important. What was unusual was how the “correspondence” was sent to me–as a Word (.doc) file and not as a .pdf.
OK, first thing to take away from this: Word files are NOT “documents.” In a paperless file the document is the substitute for the actual paper in a paper file. A document is a .pdf. Write this down boys and girls. Word processing files are drafts. They are never, ever final documents. Why? Because by their very nature anyone you send them to can change them! That all important “not” in your letter can be deleted and the resulting doctored “letter” used against your client, as in “My client did not steal $100,000 from your client” becomes “My client did steal $100,000 from your client. See the problem?
Word or any other word processing files are simply not final documents and should never be sent to anyone as such. What I received in each case was a .doc file containing the firms digital letterhead and the content of the letter. In each case the “signature” of the attorney was simply their name preceded by /s/. Leaving aside that this is the lamest way to “sign” anything, what those attorneys did was provide me with a template to create correspondence from their offices, if I was inclined to do so. Obviously, I have no intention of doing so. But don’t expect everyone you deal with to be scrupulous. In fact, you should assume that they will be unscrupulous.
The second thing to take away from this is many, many attorneys and their staffs still have no idea how to operate in an increasingly paperless world. My state is currently in the process of converting all its courts to an e-filing system. County by county are adopting e-filing and within a year the entire state court system will be paperless. Attorneys who do not understand the basics of a paperless practice will not be able to navigate through a paperless filing system.
The bottom line is this–sending a Word file to an attorney is fine if you are in fact collaborating on that file. But that Word file is not the final product, it is only a draft and should never be treated as anything else. Protect your digital signatures and digital letterhead as you would physical versions. You’ve never sent your opposing counsel a stack of your blank letterhead have you? Then don’t do it digitally.