Before You Click “Send” E-mail best practices for Lawyers

Vol. 16 No. 3

By

Laura Graham is an associate professor of Legal Writing at Wake Forest University School of Law. She can be contacted at grahamlp@wfu.edu.

For most attorneys, e-mail is a staple of law practice. In fact, in a recent survey of lawyers conducted by the ABA, 97 percent of attorneys said they used e-mail for routine correspondence, and over 70 percent said they used it for case status reports, memoranda, and briefs. Do these attorneys always take care to craft effective, error-free, and professional e-mails before they click “send”? Or do their e-mails sometimes reflect a rush to meet a deadline, a perception that e-mail isn’t “real writing,” or even instances of unprofessionalism, all of which can negatively impact them and their clients?

Attorneys can’t afford to view e-mail as an informal form of communication that warrants less time and attention than other legal documents. The recipients of your e-mails are evaluating your credibility, as well as your employer’s credibility, based on the quality and tone of your e-mails. This is true whether the e-mail contains a summary of a complex legal analysis or a three-line answer to a straightforward question. The quality and tone of our e-mails also tell our readers how we think of them; we can’t risk sending the message that we don’t respect them by writing e-mails that are too casual or too sloppy.

Here are several suggestions for writing e-mails that will reflect well upon you and your employer while meeting the needs and expectations of your readers.

·         Make the subject line appropriate and specific. “Smith discussion” is too casual and isn’t helpful; “Discussion of Bill Smith’s potential defamation claim” has a more appropriate level of formality and is more informative to the reader.

·         Carefully consider the salutation. Use a salutation at the beginning of each e-mail exchange. If a particular exchange continues over a period of time, you can usually drop the salutation. Whether you use the recipient’s last name (“Dear Ms. Miller”) or first name (“Dear Mary”) depends on the closeness of your professional relationship with the recipient.

·         Keep e-mails short. Common wisdom is that an e-mail longer than one screen contains more information than the reader is likely to absorb. So an e-mail might work fine for an analysis that can be communicated in two or three short paragraphs; anything longer should probably be included in an attachment to the e-mail.

·         State your bottom line at the outset of the e-mail. Even if you decide to put the formal analysis in a separate document attached to the e-mail, you should summarize its contents immediately and efficiently in the e-mail itself.

·         Don’t send an e-mail when you’re upset or emotional. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself whether you would say what you wrote in the e-mail to the recipient’s face. An e-mail should not be a forum for venting, especially because it can be forwarded to an unlimited number of persons whom you never intended to read it.

·         Always review an e-mail to make sure it will be received by the reader in the way you intend. The reader can’t rely on your facial expressions, body language, or intonation to interpret the content of the e-mail. For example, an e-mail that is very short and abrupt (“Don’t know.”) may seem efficient to the writer, but the reader may find it rude and dismissive.

·         DON’T TYPE IN ALL CAPS. Readers often view all caps as “electronic shouting.”

·         Don’t use cute initialiams, and don’t use emoticons. Initialisms (often referred to as acronyms) such as “FWIW” and “TTYL” may be fine for texting your teenage daughter or your “BFF,” and the little smiley-face is cute, but you wouldn’t use them in a client letter, office memo, or settlement proposal, so don’t use them in your e-mails.

·         Draft every e-mail with an eye toward confidentiality (your own and your clients’). Generally, employers can monitor their employees’ e-mail if they’ve notified the employees that monitoring may occur. And e-mails containing content that’s not protected by attorney-client privilege are now discoverable in litigation. So be zealous about guarding your own privacy and your clients’ confidentiality at all times.

Laura Graham is an associate professor of Legal Writing at Wake Forest University School of Law. She can be contacted at grahamlp@wfu.edu.

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