The New Jersey office of Pro Bono Partnership in 2015 helped 299 nonprofit clients with 654 formal projects and 788 resource calls. As we closed out 2016, we were well on the way to shattering those numbers, with the same internal staffing.
Given this volume, I thought I would share my list of seven things nonprofits could do to make a lawyer happy. As you will see, these tips will result in more efficient service for nonprofits, thus benefitting them as well.
Here are the first four. I will share the final three items on my wish list in our next post.
One: Your E-mails Should Include Descriptive Subject Lines. We all receive way too many e-mails, a fair number of which are spam. Earlier this year, via an e-mail, one of our clients asked us to review a contract that arose out of a grant it had been awarded. The subject line of the e-mail read: “Hooray!!! We just were awarded a $1 Million Grant!!!!” I was seconds away from deleting the e-mail without reading it, as I thought it was another “puff” piece – some days I just don’t have time to scan those. A better subject line, which would have caught my attention, would have been “Good Deeds Nonprofit Requests Assistance with the Review of a Contract.”
Two: Please Be Patient. Because of the volume of e-mails and calls that we receive, we often engage in triage. We also have lots of scheduled conference calls and meetings. As a result, we might not be able to get back to you the same or next business day. If something is truly urgent, a phone call usually is best. Sending multiple e-mails and making repeated phone calls the same day will not expedite my response time.
Adding the “high importance” flag to your e-mail doesn’t move it up on my priority list. I’ll triage e-mails the same way irrespective of red exclamations point appended to them.
If you don’t get a response to an e-mail within a few days, it would be worth calling us to make sure we received it. Perhaps it still is in your drafts’ folder, is lost somewhere in the Ethernet, was snagged by a spam filter, or was deleted because the subject line started with “Hooray!!!”
In a true emergency, if you don’t get a response the same day, call back 24 hours later.
Three: Don’t Reuse an Unrelated E-mail Thread to Raise a New Legal Issue. As a general rule, you should never repurpose an e-mail thread to discuss a new topic. A new legal issue should be raised in a new e-mail. Here’s why.
When you ask me a question or need help with a new project, I might need to look for a volunteer lawyer to assist you. On occasion, especially when a project is time sensitive, I might forward your e-mail to a potential volunteer who has worked with your nonprofit in the past so that the volunteer has the relevant background. If you have unrelated e-mail messages in the same e-mail thread, I might end up accidentally sharing the unrelated information with a person who doesn’t have a need to know.
Similarly, if we trade e-mails over time, the unrelated material gets buried at the bottom of a long e-mail thread. You might decide to share the most current e-mail exchange with a manager you need to bring into the loop. That other person might not have a need to know about the unrelated project (e.g., perhaps you had previously asked me about how to terminate that manager).
Four: Do Use the Same E-mail Thread for the Same Topic. When a nonprofit sends me an e-mail about a new project, I might have to ask for more information and supporting documentation. One in four nonprofits will send that information via one or more separate e-mails with different subject lines. So, instead of having all related information in one thread, I might need to refer to two or more threads. This needlessly makes things more complicated, including when I need to forward the background information on to the lawyer who volunteered to help you with the project. Also, when you need to send attachments that will not transmit in one email because they cumulatively make the e-mail too large, please identify the emails with the same subject line and an identifier such as “1 of 4,” “2 of 4,” etc.
By the way, when your computer or photocopier assigns scanned documents file names such as “docazqtx20161219111758,” before e-mailing them to me, please change each of the file names to something that is descriptive, such as “Bylaws revised November 2016.” Doing so helps us (and our volunteers) when we file the documents away and access them at a later date.
Christine Michelle Duffy is a senior staff attorney with Pro Bono Partnership. Christine is editor-in-chief and contributing author of the critically acclaimed treatise Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation Discrimination in the Workplace: A Practical Guide, and a contributor to the treatise New Jersey Employment Law.