E-mail Etiquette - ABA YLD 101 Practice Series

By Maxine R. Weiss

In today's world of technology, many of us have fallen into the habit of e-mailing with our clients and opposing counsels. While the swift speed of cyberspace certainly has its advantages, it also has an array of problems that follow it. This article shall briefly summarize some e-mail do's and don'ts that are a recommended checklist in day-to-day use.

Write your e-mails like you write your letters.
When writing e-mails, it is easy to forget to use things like dates, headers and salutations. This problem especially arises when you are responding to an e-mail. For example, it is not uncommon for a client to send an e-mail that says something along the lines of, "I placed the documents in the mail today." The automatic response is, "Great, thanks," without any formalities. However, depending on the relationship you have with the client, and how you want to be perceived in the eyes of that client (or opposing counsel), a more appropriate response might be: "Dear Client: I am in receipt of your e-mail dated January 1, 2008 wherein you indicated that your signed documents have been mailed. Thank you for the notice. I shall alert you when I receive same. Very truly yours, Maxine R. Weiss." Etc. Again, this response is client dependent. Some client's might take offense to a rigid response, while others may be expecting one. Always ask yourself before you send or reply to an e-mail, "Who is my audience?"

Watch your tone.
The tone of an e-mail is easily misconstrued. Due to the fact that e-mails have a tendency to be informal, e-mails that lack niceties (as many professional correspondences should) can easily be misinterpreted. Even not responding fast enough to an e-mail can cause miscommunication problems. For whatever reason, e-mails that do not include smiley faces or cute semantics often read as cold and even aggressive. To avoid this problem, I recommend stepping up the friendly professional language, such as "Kindly find attached..." or "With warm regards..." The simplest choice of words can make or break the tone of your e-mail.

Double check your recipient's address.
Another common problem with sending e-mails is your client's e-mail address. If for some reason you have the wrong address, the e-mail may float around in cyberspace for a period of time before ever returning to your inbox with that dreaded "failure" notice. E-mail can be the fastest way to alert a client to the new status of their case, but at the same time, I always recommend following up with a phone call or a letter via regular (snail) mail, or both.

Make copies of your e-mails.
Most law firms keep copies of every letter received and sent in each individual case. It is important to do the same with e-mails. You may question the importance of printing out "insignificant" e-mails such as, "Great job in court today, thanks!" But this tiny courtesy could hold some influence when your client decides three months later that they are now unhappy with the uncontested Judgment entered and are considering an ARDC complaint against Yours Truly. My motto: err on the side of caution. I print everything (or at least save it in the client's computer file). Truth be told, I would rather kill a tree then kill my career. If you are worried about the potential high volume of paper after you've printed off every email ever sent/received, try waiting until you and (for e.g.) your client have corresponded back and forth a few times before printing off the chain of e-mails. This also makes it easier to understand the communications that took place when and if you go back in the file at a later date.

Caution on who will see the e-mail.
Always ask yourself where your e-mail might end up. It's a lot easier to forward an e-mail, or even make changes (falsify) to an original e-mail, than it is a typed letter. It goes without saying that you should never send an e-mail to your co-worker complaining about your boss; 30 seconds after it's been sent it could be sitting in your employer's inbox flashing "Fwd". If there is anyone in the world that you DO NOT want to see the email you are about to send, then maybe it should not be sent at all. After all, in the "old days" attorneys used to pick up the phone or initiate an in-office conference when they needed to converse with a colleague or client. Of course, if you are worried about your e-mail being changed or falsified, keeping records of the e-mails you send as referenced under #4 above can protect you in this area as well.

Careful what you wish for.
Do not give your e-mail out to just anyone. While I recognize that this can be difficult if your e-mail is listed as a contact on your webpage, business card, etc., there are ways to avoid overuse. There are certain client's that I prefer to communicate with via e-mail and I make that very clear to them. In closing a conversation, I will tell them, "E-mail is the best way to reach me." However, there are other client's that I have found are impossible to e-mail with. Those are the client's that send me a "quick question" every 90 minutes and expect a quick response. Most lawyers will chime together on this one... there are no quick questions; or at least no quick answers. For the client's that abuse e-mail, I usually respond to their e-mails with a request for a teleconference or in-office meeting.

Pause before hitting send.
Proofread your e-mail before hitting send. Most e-mail services have spelling and grammar checks that all too often go unused. Double-check that your e-mail is being sent TO the person you intend it for. For example, did you hit "reply to all" when you only meant to reply to the sender? and vice versa. Your response may be intended for only some people's eyes; alternatively, if you do not include certain people in your e-mail, you may be seen as going behind that person(s) back. E-mail may seem like the fastest way to communicate, but sometimes it is the fastest way to miscommunication. Just like everything in lawyering, proofread proofread proofread.

Questions? E-mail me (ha ha) at: mrw@family-law-illinois.com.


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About the Author

Ms. Weiss is a lawyer with the Law Firm of Debra Braselton in Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois and practices family law.

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