Email for Law Practice

At-Home Edition

Alice E. Burke
Email coworkers periodically, simply to say hello. We sacrifice casual social interactions all too easily when working from home.

Email coworkers periodically, simply to say hello. We sacrifice casual social interactions all too easily when working from home.

izusek/E+ via GettyImages

Just when you thought email skills could not matter more, now they matter more.

Once, we worked in offices and spoke face-to-face. Partners popped by with stories and assignments. Colleagues workshopped arguments over lunch. Associates stopped by assistants’ desks to plan court filings. Though cloaked in camaraderie and accompanied by smiles, jokes, and chitchat, these interactions drove the practice of law.

Those offices are now quiet. We are working as hard as ever, but we are often working alone, from home. Conversations are taking place by phone, or more likely, email. The help sought and received with a smile, a joke, and some chit chat is now just another demand on a screen. Support is still available, but it may be given with a mutter of discontent. 

Maintaining a Balance of Work and Play with Virtual Colleagues

How do you maintain camaraderie at a distance? One way is to think about your emails before you hit “send.” Are your requests another demand on a screen, or do they reinforce your face-to-face connection with your colleagues?

You may have to unlearn some of what your professors taught you. In legal writing, brevity and directness are critical. They let lawyers convey information clearly and succinctly, without room for misunderstanding. Professors and supervising attorneys admonish: “Get to the point.” Generally, they are right. Not everything a lawyer writes, though, is legal writing. Approaching non-legal interactions using the conventions of legal writing risks alienating the recipient and killing the camaraderie you shared in the office.

First, determine if your email is legal writing or simply writing incidental to legal practice. If it is the former, do as your professor taught you. If the latter, do as your mother taught you. Be polite and respectful. Say please and thank you. Offer a pleasantry or two (ideally sincere ones). Once you have acknowledged the humanity of your recipient, get to the point.

Before Emailing to Seek Assistance or Assign a Task

  • Have you phrased your email as a request or a demand?
    Even if it is someone’s job to help, you should still ask politely and appreciate the help. If you ask nicely, the task will be done better, sooner, and more willingly.
  • Have you been clear about what you need and when you need it?
    Face-to-face, you can often tell that someone is not following what you are saying, so you can clarify on the spot. Email makes this more difficult. Ensure that the assignment or request is clear and specific so that the task completed is the task you intended to assign.
  • Have you respected the recipient’s other obligations?
    You probably have a lot going on personally and professionally right now. So does everyone else. If you know your recipient has other specific obligations, identify where your new request falls in order of priority. If you are unsure, ask, so you can establish the appropriate priority. Give as much lead time as possible. Not everything should be urgent.

With Any Email, Ask Yourself . . .

  • Have you given the recipient all the necessary information?
    Context helps recipients understand why you are writing and allows them to respond appropriately, which saves time for everyone.
  • Have you spared the recipient from unnecessary information?
    While some context is important, do not go overboard. Do not make the reader slog through unnecessary details to extract pertinent ones. If the information is confidential or privileged, limiting access only to people who need it will help keep it that way.
  • Have you communicated clearly?
    If your message is ambiguous, your reader must ask you to clarify, which is annoying and time-consuming for everyone. Ambiguity can also lead to misunderstandings that create more significant problems.
  • Have you proofread your message?
    Proofreading helps ensure you are clear, thorough, and kind. Proofreading also reveals other errors that might reflect poorly on your professionalism. These emails might be around for a while.
  • Should you call instead?
    Some communications work better in real-time, not through the back-and-forth of email. Is this one of them?

Finally, email coworkers periodically, simply to say hello. We sacrifice casual social interactions all too easily when working from home. When you do see your comrades in the office, you want them to be happy to see you. 

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Alice E. Burke

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Alice E. Burke, a former labor and employment attorney, is a member of the New York University Law School Graduate Lawyering Program faculty.