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The Last Word: Etiquette for Business Casual Communications

Emails are probably the most common form of written legal communication, but like the dress rules for business casual, there’s little guidance on the current etiquette for this more informal medium. The news every day tells us that we have to be careful about what we say in our emails because all are discoverable. See George W. Kuney, Legal Form, Style, and Etiquette for Email, 15 Transactions: Tenn. J. Bus. L. 59 (2013). We all know—even if we don’t always comply with—a few rules: Do not include rude, salacious, all caps (angry), or other ill-advised content; do not hit “Reply all” without serious thought. See id. at 64, 66. But what are the current conventions for polite email transmittals?

The Subject Line

Few of us read all of our emails—we get so many! The subject line will probably determine whether the recipient reads the email—or files it with that trashcan icon. For an active transaction, a descriptive reference to the transaction and the name of the sender will alert the recipient to the importance of the communication. For an email relating to a volunteer organization like the ABA, the reference line should be a bit more descriptive to get the recipient’s attention (“Committee on Clothes, Wednesday Call on Wearing Them”). In some circumstances, a brief summary of the contents may be necessary (“No Optional Clothing for Committee Members”), but it’s a mistake to include more than a few words in the subject line. Instead the reference line should contain only enough information to identify the subject and its importance to the recipient.

The Salutation

These days, particularly in emails sent by younger lawyers, the preferred salutation appears to be “Hi [name].” To a Boomer, this seems awfully familiar—like sneakers at the office. I prefer the traditional “Dear [name]” to start my more formal emails. Generally, this entails a Mr. or Ms. preceding the last name of the recipient or, if you know the recipient, the recipient’s first name. (If opposing counsel has annoyed me, I might start the email with “Dear Mr. or Ms. [name] even if I know that lawyer.) Even setting aside the political correctness considerations, “Sir,” “Madam,” and “Sir or Madam” are off-putting (unless you want to sound like a solicitation). One website suggests the alternative of “Greetings,” but that sounds like a holiday card (or a Bruce Springsteen album). See Karen Hertzberg, How to Start an Email: 6 Never-Fail Introductions and 6 to Avoid, Grammarly Blog, https://bit.ly/2T5v98c (first choice, “Hi [name],” second choice, “Dear [name],” with “Greetings” coming in third). Another commentator suggests “Good Morning” or “Good Afternoon.” Kuney, supra, at 67.

I’ll get used to “Hi,” even if I’m not willing to wear those sneakers myself. But a correct salutation requires thought by the sender—an evaluation of the relative formality of the missive and the recipient’s probable preferences.

The Body

In many cases, the parties skip the salutation and dive right into the meat of the email. Like khakis in an informal office, this lack of formality is common and accepted in the heat of ongoing discussions and when the parties know each other fairly well. But the body of the email should still be written with the same care as if it were a letter typed on paper and sent by snail mail. There’s no excuse for bad grammar, spelling, or usage in the body of even an informal email. Your recipients are just as likely to sneer at your mistakes as they would be had the correspondence been typed on paper. Like business casual dress, business casual communication must show that you care about your (written) appearance. And no emojis or emoticons have a place in a business email, whatever your age! See Marie A. Moore, of Emojis: They Are Communication, But of What?, 33 Prob. & Prop. 64 (Nov/Dec 2019). You’re still communicating in writing to a client or other counsel, and you should sound like you’re a professional adult worth your fees.

The Closing

As in the case of the salutation, no single closing phrase will suit all emails or all recipients. “Sincerely yours,” and “I am, very truly yours” sound stilted in an email. A closing that is tailored to the substance of the email works best. For example, if the email is a prelude to a call, “We look forward to discussing the Universal Clothing Requirement with you on Wednesday” is perfect. No further closing is necessary—just your name, followed by your professional block with your name, title, firm name, address, and telephone number, then that pesky disclaimer.

Conclusion

Of course, things change. Today’s prohibited jeans may be tomorrow’s uniform for casual office wear. But your audience encompasses several generations and styles. You should always write, even in emails, with thought and consideration of your audience—all of it.

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