Emory University School of Law
Armstrong Talent Development
University of Miami School of Law
Long ago, when emails first appeared, they arrived with the promise of being not only quick, but also short, simple, and easy—a hope that has now been transferred to texts and instant messaging platforms. Writing emails, it turned out, is an art that requires more skill and thought than many lawyers bring to bear. From the profession’s decades of experience with this troublesome medium, here is the accumulated advice:
1. Think carefully about the tone and appropriate level of formality. In letters and conversations, the conventions guide us: We begin letters, for example, with a stylized salutation and end with a polite closing. Emails lack such established conventions. As a result, it is easy to misjudge the appropriate tone for a specific reader. For example, should your first email to Jane Smith begin “Jane,” “Hi Jane,” “Dear Jane,” or “Dear Ms. Smith”? If you are in doubt about the right level of formality, it is almost always better to err on the formal side, especially in emails to someone you do not know well, who is above you in a pecking order, or who works in a country whose conventions are not familiar to you. Once you see their response, you can then model your tone on theirs—though still with the modifications your place in the pecking order suggests.
For junior lawyers, these modifications can be important. The more senior you are, the more you can get away not only with informality, but with typos and outright linguistic sloppiness. When junior lawyers receive a casually written email from a colleague or a client, they sometimes assume they can respond in kind, with consequences that are all the more dangerous because they may never realize the impression they made. Even in apparently casual communications, it is better to follow the “do as I say, not as I do” approach: Use proper formalities and writing conventions, and take the time to proofread and copyedit before hitting “Send.”
For some lawyers, the risk is different: In the effort to be crisp and businesslike, they may inadvertently come across as harsh or impersonal. Although we sometimes approach emails as if they were conversations on a keyboard, they lack the handshakes, body language, and vocal inflections that help to manage a conversation’s tone. The crisp, short email you just wrote may seem straightforward and efficient to you, but brusque and unfriendly to its reader.
2. Be slow to hit “Send.” Whereas a letter is almost always reviewed, revised, and otherwise reflected upon before it is sent, with the speed of emails comes the urge to “send” too quickly or distractedly, say while waiting in line at the airport check-in counter. This speediness can cause mistakes in content, not only tone. Rather than assuming an apparently rushed and thoughtless email deserves an equally rushed response, take time to think through the implications of what you received and how you will respond.
3. Write to be read by speed-readers who love to skim emails or ignore them altogether. Almost everyone has developed survival techniques for coping with the tsunami of emails:
In this unforgiving environment, survival dictates that you develop the following habits:
4. When an email will cross time zones or be read the next day, be specific about times and dates. If an email is read in a different time zone, references to times will be ambiguous unless you specify whose time. If the email crosses the dateline, “today” and “tomorrow” are also ambiguous. Even if it doesn’t, those words are dangerous because the recipient may not open the email on the day it is sent and may not notice the date in the email heading.
Let’s pause and bring these warnings to bear on an example. Assume Jane, a partner, uses her smartphone to send this typo-riddled message to Sam, a junior associate:
To: Sam Jones
From: Jane Smith
Subject: Proj. Alpha
Sam: can you get the revised trem sheet to me tonigt? I’m at the Hiton in Bali. Thx
Sam receives the email at 10:00 p.m. his time, and immediately fires off a reply:
To: Jane Smith
From: Sam Jones
Subject: Re: Proj Alpha
Just about finished but currency of payment still being chewed over. Jack is being difficult about it. Will get revision to you as soon as I can—probably noon tomorrow.
Especially if Sam is still making a first impression on Jane, this response goes wrong in several ways:
With a couple of minutes’ reflection, Sam might have sent this reply instead:
To: Jane Smith
From: Sam Jones
Subject: Re: Proj. Alpha—timing of final revisions
Jane—Everything is complete except a decision about the currency of payment, which should be resolved as soon as Jack is in his office in London tomorrow (Wednesday) morning his time. I’ll email you the revision without that piece in an hour and email the currency provision by 8:00 a.m. NY time Wednesday (10:00 p.m. Bali time).
Three final recommendations:
5. Do not hide behind email. Email was created to make communication quicker and more efficient. But it often has the opposite effect because it lends itself to misinterpretation and, in the worst circumstances, a spiral of increasing hostility. Even without those dire consequences, it does not usually build relationships as effectively as conversations. Will the relationship be best served by an email, a phone call, or a face-to-face conversation?
If you are part of the Millennial or Generation Z generations, be aware that some in the older generations may judge you to be unfriendly or lacking in self-confidence if you rely too heavily on emails rather than conversations. If you are a Boomer or Gen X-er, on the other hand, realize that the prevalence of texting and other forms of quick, informal messaging has led newer generations to draw the line between personal and impersonal in a different place. If they text or use WhatsApp or Slack to communicate with someone in an office two doors down from theirs, their intent may actually be to increase the flow of person-to-person communication, not to avoid human contact.
6. Be mindful of the signals sent by “To,” “CC,” and “BCC.” Readers will read and respond to an email differently depending on how it is addressed to them. A “To” reader is expected to pay attention, probably respond, and perhaps act on the email’s content. “CC” and “BCC” readers need the email for their information or records, but they are not expected to take any responsive action. (For those who have never had to wrestle with carbon paper, “CC” stands for “carbon copy” and “BCC” for “blind carbon copy.”) Be wary, however, about including BCCs. Just as many lawyers consider it unprofessional to have an unannounced, silent listener on a conference call, so too do they consider it sneaky to use BCCs, unless the addressee’s job is simply to file the email or calendar a date.
A related point: Consider the relevant universe of recipients. Are you about to include people to whom the email is irrelevant, simply because they are part of a larger group or team? Or to omit someone who needs the information, even if they have not been included in the email chain so far? And should everyone who needs the information be included in the CCs, or should you instead forward the email along with an explanation of why you are sending it?
7. Think twice before you hit “Reply All.” Enough said.
This excerpt was taken from
PLI Programs you may be interested in:
Also available from PLI Press:
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and official policies of Practising Law Institute.
To submit an article for consideration, please contact the editor at:
This article is published on PLI PLUS, the online research database of PLI. The entirety of the PLI Press print collection is available on PLI PLUS—including PLI's authoritative treatises, answer books, course handbooks and transcripts from our original and highly acclaimed CLE programs.
Sign up for a free trial of PLI PLUS at