Emails are the easiest way for grandpa to send you political memes, to annoy friends with long threads about upcoming birthdays, and keep in touch with colleagues and clients. Whether you love them or hate them, emails are a daily part of any attorney’s life.
Here’s a short list of tips to make sure you’re using the medium to effectively and clearly communicate your thoughts. While these may seem like obvious tips, too many people make simple errors that could cost them their reputation, relationships or even jobs.
• Plan What You’re Going to Say
Like with any piece of writing, a little prior planning goes a long way. Asking yourself a few simple questions not only makes the email easier to read, but also easier to write.
First, why are you writing this email? To request documents from opposing counsel? Communicate an important development to a client? To set up an office happy hour? All of these scenarios are completely different and will determine the structure and tone of your email. Plus, if you start out knowing your purpose for writing, your email can get right to the point and avoid meandering and losing the reader. If you have two or more unrelated things you need to communicate, consider sending different emails under different subject lines.
Second, who is the recipient? Knowing who is going to read your email will determine the tone. If you’re writing to a judge or law firm partner, you’ll want to use more formal language and avoid anything that could be considered unprofessional. If you’re writing to your paralegal, you might be less formal. Of course, no matter who you’re writing to, remember to be respectful of them and their time.
• Use Clear, Respectful Language
Careless writing can be misinterpreted, leading to at best a confused reader and, at worst, an insulted one. No matter who you’re writing to, use clear and respectful language. Use salutations appropriate for your recipient. Always err on the side of formality if you’re not sure how to greet someone. Spell names correctly -- nothing annoys people more than being called the wrong name. Use an appropriate sign-off (“Kind regards” is always good standby). Avoid using any cute quotations in your signature as these appear unprofessional and add little to your message.
And most importantly, avoid jokes or sarcasm. Writing doesn’t have the benefit of normal body language or voice inflection. What would be a funny comment in conversation could be considered rude or insulting in writing, especially for recipients who don’t know you very well.
• Use Short Sentences, Headings, and White Space
The reality is that few people actually read emails word for word these days. They’re more likely to scan, so it’s important to write short sentences. Dense blocks of text are difficult to read, especially now that emails are often read on mobile phones.
Keep paragraphs to three to four sentences maximum. If the email you’re writing is over three paragraphs and has multiple points to make, consider organizing it using bolded headings. This not only improves the chances that readers won’t skip over important information, it also makes it easier for them to find the information they need later on.
• Proofread, Proofread, Proofread
The beauty of emails is that you can take your time to make sure you get it right. Typos and grammatical errors distract from your point and make you appear less professional and trustworthy. If you’re too careless to bother writing a proper sentence, how can you be trusted to pay attention to the details of a client’s case?
Grammar and typos aside, the proofreading stage is a good chance to see if you answered your initial questions correctly. Does your email communicate what you want it to? Are the points you make organized and coherent? Is everything you write about related? Do you go off on unrelated tangents? Are your sentences short and to the point? If you can answer yes to all of these questions, then you can feel confident your email will be read and understood by your recipient. We might suggest integrating Grammarly into your browser/email to cross-reference for typos.
• Send It to the Right Person
The final point -- and probably most important for legal counsel -- is to send your email to the right person! Double and triple check your recipients. Did you hit reply-all when you just meant to reply? Are you sending important discovery information to opposing counsel John Donn instead of client John Doe? Are you complaining about a judge… to that judge? So many headaches and possible ethics issues can be avoided just by looking at who is getting your email. Additionally, it’s always better to never complain or put something in writing that you wouldn’t want distributed or published. To keep your professional image clean, it’s well-advised to just leave complaints to yourself (unless someone is doing something unethical/illegal).
Thanks to Erica Toews and Lazarus Lazaridis for some inspiration for these tips.