For most lawyers, email is their primary method of correspondence with clients, courts, opposing counsel and others. Over the years, we’ve become increasingly reliant on email because it’s a fairly simple and cost-effective way to communicate.
Of course, as technology has advanced, so too have the tools that can be used to make email more useful. Many of these tools have the end effect of streamlining email correspondence. Email add-ons and built-in features allow users to schedule emails, automate the process of sorting and filing emails, and snooze emails for viewing at a later date, among other things. In most cases, these new features increase the efficiency of email.
But sometimes email add-ons can have a more nefarious purpose. Case in point: email tracking tools. Typically this type of software allows the sender to track a wide range of things, including when a sent email and its attachments are opened, how long the recipient views the email and attachments, how many times they was opened, whether they were forwarded, and the geographical location of the recipient.
Email tracking clearly raises some ethical red flags in the context of lawyer communications, so it’s no surprise that its use by lawyers has been addressed by a number of ethics committees.
First there was New York Opinion 749 (2001), wherein the Committee on Professional Ethics determined that a lawyer may not “use available technology to surreptitiously examine and trace e-mail and other electronic documents.” Then there was the Alaska Bar Association Ethics Committee which concluded in Opinion 2016-1 that even if the use of email tracking software is disclosed, its application to emails sent to opposing counsel is ultimately both dishonest and unethical.
Pennsylvania has also issued an opinion addressing email tracking. In Formal Opinion 2017-300 the committee concluded that Pennsylvania lawyers should avoid using email tracking tools with opposing counsel. Most recently, in Opinion 18-01, the Illinois State Bar Association likewise determined that it is unethical for lawyers to use email tracking software with opposing counsel.
Last week, the issue of whether lawyers should use email tracking software once again reared its ugly head, but this time in the context of a war crime court martial. As covered in a number of major news outlets, defense counsel for
Edward Gallagher - a man accused of stabbing an Islamic State group militant to death - alleged that the military prosecutor in that case sent an email that included email tracking software to multiple lawyers, paralegals, and a reporter with the Navy Times.
Two weeks after the allegations were made, the judge presiding over the case issued a ruling that resulted in the removal the prosecutor from the case. The reasons for the removal were based on constitutional due process and Sixth Amendment grounds and because the threat of investigation into alleged prosecutorial misconduct could be viewed as a conflict of interest.
If you weren’t already convinced about the perils of lawyers using email tracking, this case offers even more evidence that lawyers and email tracking software are a bad combination. Likewise, it offers additional support for the recommendation I made when I wrote about email tracking software last year - and that I still stand by today:
“For those of you who practice in one of the many jurisdictions where this issue has not yet been addressed, I would suggest that it would be wise to err on the side of caution and, in the absence of consent, avoid using software with opposing counsel that could provide insights regarding their online behavior, whether it’s part of an email program or otherwise. After all, it’s better to be safe than sorry.”
Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase law practice management software for small law firms. She is the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes legal technology columns for Above the Law and ABA Journal and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. You can follow her on Twitter at @nikiblack or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.