May 19, 2014
Some of these items may be obvious, others are not. This list comes from 14+ years of legal practice, including as a big firm associate and partner. The bottom line is that is advisable to give some thought to e-mail correspondence, including whether to send. This list could be used for any professional but lawyers really have no excuse not to exercise this level of caution.
1) Take time to consider whether sending the e-mail makes sense.
Perhaps calling would save further questions and multiple rounds of e-mail. What is the communication preference of the intended recipient? Do you know?
2) Take time to consider who should be included in the e-mail.
If your project concerns legal areas where other colleagues have expertise or other colleagues who may be involved, it may make sense to include them both because they could be helpful and to demonstrate awareness of people’s sensitivities (and avoid potential conflict if folks not included discover after the fact).
3) Related to who should be included, if you are sending the e-mail to multiple people take time to consider the order of the names in the salutation and the inclusion of titles, if appropriate.
For example, if practice group leaders or other management are involved, consider adding their titles.
4) Be careful not to drop any bombs by e-mail. Also consider privilege and confidentiality concerns and be sure to include such designations, if appropriate.
Instead of criticizing, finding fault, or complaining, provide solutions (or do not send the e-mail). Treat every e-mail as if the contents could end up on the front page of the New York Times.
5) Be sensitive to tone.
You cannot control other people’s reaction to your words but you can mitigate trouble by not using overly charged or emotional words such as urgent, very, must, etc.
6) Stick to facts and leave opinions out to the extent possible.
If you have to provide an opinion, be sure to make clear that it is your opinion.
7) Be concise and provide the purpose in the first line (or the Subject line, if possible)
People are busy and do not have time to read through an entire e-mail to get to your point/request.
8) Stay formal and professional to the extent possible.
Treat your e-mail like you are writing a letter.
9) Try not to use e-mail because you are too lazy to send a letter.
Consider making the extra effort and take the time to congratulate, or thank someone with a letter. You will stand out.
10) If making a request, be clear as to what you are requesting and your timing.
11) When receiving e-mails, try to be responsive as possible. If you do not have time to address the contents, consider sending a quick e-mail acknowledging receipt and noting that you will respond to the substance shortly.
12) Consider providing recipients advance notice that the e-mail is coming, especially if you are asking something of someone.