Never ever ever send a Word file as “correspondence.” A Word file — or a WordPerfect, OpenOffice.org, or Pages 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.
I frequently receive “correspondence” attached to an email from an attorney involved in one of my cases. Nothing is unusual about that. While I think an email with a professional-looking signature block is plenty formal, there are times when a more formal letter is important, and sending it as an attachment to an email works just fine. What is unusual is how these attachments are sent to me — as a Word file instead of as a PDF.
Okay, first thing to take away: Word files are not documents. In a paperless environment, a document must be a substitute for the actual paper. A PDF file can be a document. A Word file cannot. Write this down. Word 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 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 files are simply not final documents and should never be sent to anyone unless you are working on a draft.
What I usually receive is a .doc file with the firm’s digital letterhead and the content of the letter. In each case the “signature” of the attorney was simply their name preceded by /s/. First, this is the lamest way to “sign” a document outside of electronic case filing, what those attorneys did was provide me with a template to create correspondence from their firm, if I was inclined to do so. (Obviously, I would not, since it would be an obvious ethical violation.) You should not expect everyone you deal with to be scrupulous. In fact, you should assume that they will be unscrupulous to protect yourself and your client.
The second thing to take away from this is that many, many attorneys still have no idea how to operate in an increasingly paperless world. Many state courts are converting to electronic filing. Attorneys who do not understand the basics of a paperless practice will not be able to navigate in that world.
The bottom line is this: sending a Word file to an attorney is fine if you are in fact collaborating on that file. But always remember that the Word file is not the final product; it is only a draft and you should never treat it 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.
This was originally published on April 25, 2013. It bears repeating, so we republished it on August 25, 2014.