A storm in a tea cup

Today may be Halloween, but there are some things scarier than ghoulies. Such as email howlers. Everyone’s been there. You press ‘send’, the message goes, and your hands make their way to your head.

Sometimes, as in the case of Baker & McKenzie ‘ketchup trousers’ man Richard Philips, or notorious email forwarder Bradley Chait, the results are a tad more public than most. The media storm resulting from Philips’ private spat with a Bakers’ secretary, which spun round the world in hours and made headlines everywhere, was particularly ridiculous. But even when the slip doesn’t make the papers, the results can be painful.

This time it’s not a ketchup-stained trouser leg or the private fumblings of soon-to-be-ex-lovers that’s the subject. This one hits much closer to the core of any lawyer’s being: the bill.

In the case of Ashurst and the rogue message, intended for the lawyers on the deal but which found its way to the client, it was also expensive.

Ashurst is believed to have quoted dotcom Whereonearth £175,000 for the job of advising it on its sale to Yahoo! The eventual bill was closer to £400,000.

OK, deals sometimes take longer than expected, what can you do? What you should probably not do is accidentally send an email to your client saying that you never thought you could do the deal for £175,000 in the first place. Oops.

All would no doubt have been fine, for Ashurst anyway, without the costly slip of a finger. After all, Whereonearth was happy to go on record to say how delighted it was with the firm’s work. It was also happy to say that Ashurst had “absorbed some of the additional costs” itself. For that, read Whereonearth indulging in a spot of Sir Alex Ferguson-style hairdryer action with its lawyers.

Most readers will have some sympathy for the Ashurst team. Anyone who has ever been stuck on a project that grows out of all proportion from the original plan – we’re guessing that’s everybody – will recognise the moment when you say “I told you so”. Just remember that there are some people it’s probably worth not saying that to.

There is no suggestion that Ashurst knew at the outset that the quoted fee was never likely to be the actual end figure. So the story serves primarily as yet another reminder of the dangers of the technology that everybody in business uses every day. There but for the grace of God…