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Program helps lawyers avoid sending hostile e-mail

BOSTON — Almost everyone has been in a situation where an e-mail that they sent was misinterpreted by the receiver, but a new product may help avoid such awkward situations altogether.

ToneCheck — launched in July by New Brunswick-based Lymbix Inc. — is a program that scans an e-mail draft in Microsoft Outlook for emotionally charged language.

“It works like spell check and grammar check,” said Matt Eldridge, who created the program. “It’s designed to be very intuitive so users don’t have to learn anything new and are able to use it right away. If you know how to use spell check, you know how to use ToneCheck.”

The tool also “learns” the more it is used, and becomes accustomed to the writer’s style and common phrases he or she uses.

And it’s likely to serve an important purpose for attorneys.

“Being able to extract highly charged and emotional content will lend a lot of value to lawyers,” said Eldridge.  “A lot of the information they’re putting into e-mail and documents is very sensitive, so understanding how a message is going to be portrayed is very important.”

Ed Poll of LawBiz Management in Venice, Calif. agreed.

“It’s better than stewing over the communication and just never seeing what the reader might see, or worse, internalize,” said Poll.

To get started, a ToneCheck user sets a “tone tolerance” for positive and negative language. If a word, phrase or sentence falls outside of the set range, ToneCheck flags it and alerts the user to its possible interpretations.

Another benefit, Eldridge said, is that “ToneCheck gives you a second look at your e-mail before it’s sent. It’s like asking the person in the next cubicle to look over your e-mail, except automated.”

Eldridge noted that it’s important to understand what sort of person will be receiving your message. The adjustable settings make it easy to allow a sarcastic comment to be sent to a friend, but they then can be dialed back, such that the same comment will be flagged in an e-mail to a client.

Poll suggests using ToneCheck as part of your e-mail-writing routine, along with proofreading and getting a second look from a colleague.

“Use ToneCheck to double-check your true intentions,” he advised. “If nothing else, the added time it takes to use this program will give you another chance to think through what you truly intend” to say in your e-mail.

ToneCheck is free in its current beta version, and will be launched as a full version for sale in a few months. Currently, it is only available for PC users of Outlook.

Eldridge plans to eventually develop ToneCheck for all Microsoft Office products, which he hopes will help lawyers in not only writing e-mails to colleagues and clients, but also in scanning their briefs and other documents for potentially problematic language.

“As we develop, we hope to include features like suggestions, profiling and the ability to ignore certain characteristics,” he said.