10 Email Do’s and Don’ts

Chris Jensen, Founder, Legal Writing Coach

Emails are the most common form of legal writing, but they can often lead to trouble. Here are 10 tips for good email etiquette.

1. DON’T hit “send” while emotional

Emails are uniquely dangerous. They’re fast, so it’s easy to shoot one off while emotional. And once sent, the message is impossible to retrieve. It floats around in cyberspace, theoretically forever.

So resist the impulse to hit “send” in the heat of the moment. An emotional email is unprofessional and rarely produces the desired result. Also, the cause of the irritation is often due to a misunderstanding that is later clarified.

2. DON’T automatically hit “respond to all”

Most of us wish that other people would stop hitting “respond to all”, so we should stop doing it, too. Your circle of recipients should be as small as possible. No one – especially busy clients and lawyers – appreciates receiving emails that have little to do with them. Send the email to people you expect to respond to it; cc people who need to be informed.

3. DON’T write long emails

Lawyers’ emails are often too long. Psychologically, recipients expect emails to be relatively short and easy to deal with. Also, long emails are difficult to read on a computer screen or smart phone.

If the email is much longer than one screen, consider another approach. Write a short email that gives the reader the quick context (“Thank you for the call yesterday in which we discussed …”) and a short answer with an attachment (“The contract should be redrafted, as discussed in detail in the attached memo.”). You’re giving the reader the same amount of information, but the email is short and satisfies the reader’s psychological expectation of dealing with it quickly.

The above approach also allows you to benefit from drafting the attachment in Microsoft Word, which offers much more writing help than a typical email programme. For example, Microsoft Word spots usage errors (grammar, punctuation, spelling), offers style help (short sentences, active voice) and is easy to format (headings, indentations).

If you don’t like the idea of an attachment instead of a long email, you can still get help from Microsoft Word. Draft the email in Microsoft Word, then copy and paste it into the email message.

4. DO respond quickly to important emails

The most common client complaint about lawyers is poor/slow communication. Partners differ on how quickly they expect their lawyers to respond to client emails, but a long silence is never appreciated. For important emails, quickly acknowledge receipt and tell them when they can expect a full answer – then tag the email so you don’t forget.

Another idea is to use your “out of office” message not only when you go on holiday but any time you expect to be incommunicado for more than an hour. It may not be ideal for a client to receive an “out of office” message, but it’s better than silence and it saves you the trouble of answering emails on your smart phone while in a meeting or at a hearing.

A final idea – rarely done – is simply to discuss communication matters with your client at the beginning of a mandate. Ask them questions like (1) How do you prefer to communicate (email, phone, etc)?; (2) How often do you want to communicate?; (3) How quickly do you expect a response?; and (4) Do you prefer communicating with just one point person in the firm? Asking the client these simple questions up front creates a great first impression, builds goodwill and helps avoid communication complaints.

5. DO memorialise important non-written communication

If you have an important verbal communication (phone, meeting), immediately memorialise it in an email. This confirms the content of the communication and ensures that you have a written record of it. To be even more careful, request a return email confirmation of your email.

6. DO delete the thread

Often, an email bounces back and forth until it contains a long thread or history. The thread can make the email awkward and confusing. Also, the thread may contain confidential or embarrassing information not intended for a later recipient. So delete the thread. Sometimes the thread/history of the email is important. In that case, keep it, but read the entire thread before sending.

7. DO think about the subject line

Most of us don’t spend enough time thinking about the email’s subject line. Make it informative with the most important information first because recipients will often be reading it on their smart phone. An informative subject line helps the reader quickly understand the scope and purpose of the email and makes it easier to file, find and forward.

Also, change the subject line as the subject of the email changes. This will avoid the common problem of a subject line that has nothing to do with the content of the email.

8. DO add the subject line and addressee last

If you add the subject line last, it will better reflect the content of the email (see 7 above).

If you add the addressee last, you avoid the risk of sending the email prematurely. This tip doesn’t work if you’re replying to an email. In that case, hit “reply” and then add a non-existent recipient (eg, “abc”). If you then accidentally hit “send”, you’ll receive and “error” message and it won’t be sent.

9. DO triple check name, title, and gender before hitting “send”

Email recipients may forgive minor typographical mistakes and the like, but they won’t forgive you for getting their name, title or gender wrong. As understandable as it may be, we take it personally if someone misspells our name or mixes up our gender. The recipient thinks: This person doesn’t care about me. This person is not professional. This person is stupid. This person can’t read (ie, my name in my email address). This person doesn’t do his homework. This person doesn’t pay attention to detail. I wonder what else this person got wrong in this email?

Are these the kind of thoughts you want clients thinking about you and your firm? Name, title and gender MUST be right. Triple check them just before you hit “send”.

10. DO attach the document when you type “I attach”

Everyone has made this mistake. The solution is simple. The moment you type “I attach” or “Please find attached”, stop writing and attach the document. You will then avoid the embarrassing follow-up email apologising for forgetting the attachment.

Bonus: DO make life easy for the partner

This tip is for more junior lawyers who are asked to prepare email correspondence to be sent in a partner’s name. First, delete the internal instructions/correspondence. Second, insert the partner’s (not your) email signature details. Third, insert/change the subject line (see 7 and 8 above). Fourth, provide the partner with the names and email addresses of the recipients. Finally, do anything else you can think of to make it as easy as possible for the partner to send the email.

Chris Jensen is a California-qualified lawyer and the former editor of Hong Kong Lawyer. He is now a full-time legal writing trainer (www.legalwritingcoach.com).